Self Storage by Gayle Brandeis
How difficult is it for the ordinary you or me to do the right thing? Well, if we are middle class and living in the US, usually, it’s not too tough. We are supported by a great safety net and we often have the means to support those around us, as long as we band together and coordinate our efforts.
But small things can make big changes in our lives, and we might have to make decisions we never could have imagined. Self Storage is about those life-altering events, about how to say ‘yes’ to what’s good, even when you really aren’t sure where that ‘yes’ is going to lead you.
Flan Parker’s mom died when Flan was only seven, leaving behind an old copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book of poems is Flan’s most precious possession, and just about all she has left of her mother. As an adult, Flan, mother of two small children and wife to a graduate student working (or not—he’s addicted to soap operas) on his Ph.D., has created a small business venture to help support the family. She bids at auction on items left in self-storage lockers. When people don’t pay the rent on these self-storage spaces, the items are auctioned to the highest bidder. However, bidders can only look into the locker for a minute with a flashlight. They are a hopeful sort, imagining treasures in the boxes piled in those lockers. But they are also reaping from others’ misfortune.
Flan wins a box that she opens, finding inside only a beautifully-painted interior and a note that says ‘yes.’ She determines to find the owner of the box and to learn what the yes means. This combined with her love of Walt Whitman, helps Flan decide that she must seek the yes in her own life as well.
This is 2002, the year after the 9/11 attacks. Flan’s role as a seeker is tested when a neighbor, a native of Afghanistan, burqa-clad and something of a hermit, accidentally turns the Parker household upside down. Flan’s efforts to sort out post-9/11 life remind the reader of why civil rights traditionally granted in the US, such as free speech and due process, deeply matter.
Several things that may appeal both to students and teachers are: The novel takes place in Riverside and Mount Baldy and you’ll recognize lots of local character; Brandeis is a local author and reading her works is a great shot in the arm for other locals—it’s an invaluable YES to the belief that things that happen right here in the IE matter; Brandeis, a winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction (in support of a literature for social change), will be one of the speakers at our Writers’ Conference on March 28 (more information to follow), so if you’re an aspiring writer, you’ll have a chance to talk to her about the writing life in the IE; it’s a quick read for those who are interested in current politics but aren’t interested in long diatribes and taking a partisan beating. Lastly, if you’re looking for a book with a literary tie-in and enjoy Whitman, you’ll love the connections.
While Self Storage certainly has appeal for teens who are interested in social and political issues, it is an adult novel and much of the book deals with themes of married couples drifting apart and coming together—supporting one another, yet needing to seek self reliance and personal goals—and of the deep value of friendships. For these reasons, teen appeal depends very much on the individual (adult appeal, I think, is wide and general).
Since Brandeis will be coming to speak to our schools’ (CHS and COHS) aspiring writers (teen and adult alike), I will be reviewing her other books. Three that have a lot of teen appeal are The Book of Dead Birds (for which Brandeis won the Bellwether Prize), Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns. A few years back, I reviewed The Book of Dead Birds and you can see that review here. My reason for reviewing Self Storage before the others is that I unexpectedly found myself in the hospital for a few days last week, and asked my husband to bring me something to read during my stay. He grabbed Self Storage from the pile of unread books on my nightstand. So—it’s fresh in my mind and now was the time to write about it. But check back because I’ll get to Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns very soon!
And mark March 28, 2012 on your calendar to come after school and participate in the mini writers’ conference. We’re hosting a poet and a non-fiction writer as well.