A little girl’s artwork turns into a big, big symbol.
Four-year-old Suzanna adores her older brother Ernie, who, toward the end of the Great Depression, is more or less the man of the family. Why, Ernie managed to pay for his family’s new furnace by apprenticing himself to the repairman, and he shows saintly patience toward his younger siblings, especially Zanna. Ernie’s the only one who understands Zanna’s odd drawing—and it’s a sad day for all when the noble boy dies all of a sudden. Something in his brain, the author states coyly (an aneurysm, we assume). Zanna is deemed too young to understand that Ernie has died and is told only that he has gone far away. As a Christmas gift to him, she makes another drawing, which no one can quite bring themselves to look at. The years roll by, the children grow up and have children of their own, and the drawing becomes a touchstone (everyone sees something different in it). Other characters die (the story is littered with several generations of corpses), and a younger daughter, looking bold and brave in a painting by her aunt Zanna, is stricken with polio. Confined first to an iron lung and then to a wheelchair, Betty becomes a symbol, too, in this confused and morbid debut.
Note: the description of Ernie, dead in bed, frozen in rigor mortis, is unlikely to be read aloud by a cozy Christmas fire.