Read Western Wind Online

Authors: Paula Fox

Western Wind






Winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award

Winner of the
Paris Review's
Hadada Award

“The greatest writer of her generation.” —Jonathan Franzen

“One of America's most talented writers.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Consistently excellent.”
—The New York Times

“Fox has always been adept at writing apparently simple stories which on closer examination prove to explore the essential meaning of relationships … and to illuminate our understanding of the human condition.”
—School Library Journal

“Paula Fox is so good a novelist that one wants to go out in the street to hustle up a big audience for her.… Fox's brilliance has a masochistic aspect: I will do this so well, she seems to say, that you will hardly be able to read it. And so she does, and so do I.” —Peter S. Prescott,

“Fox is one of the most attractive writers to come our way in a long, long time.” —
The New Yorker

“As a writer, Fox is all sensitive, staring eyeball. Her images break the flesh. They scratch the retina … Fox's prose hurts.” —Walter Kirn,
New York

“Fox's achievement is to write with magnificent restraint and precision about the interplay of personal and historical, inner growth and outer framework, the process of learning to think about oneself and the world.” —Margaret and Michael Rustin

“Fox has little of Roth's self-consciousness, less of Bellow's self-importance, and none of Updike's self-pity. Unlike all three men, Fox does not jealously save the best lines for a favoured alter ego, and her protagonists do not have a monopoly on nuance. Instead, she distributes her formidable acumen unselfishly, so that even the most minor characters can suddenly offer crucial insight, and unsympathetic characters are often the most fascinating: brilliant, unfathomable and raging.” —Sarah Churchwell

“There are no careless moves in the fiction of Paula Fox.… [Her] work has a purity of vision, and a technique undiminished by
or self-indulgence.” —Randal Churb,
The Boston Review

“Paula Fox is as good as her revived reputation suggests.” —Fiona Maazel,

Western Wind

School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

A Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book

“Another subtle and thoughtful novel from this fine author … Beautifully realized characters, vividly telling images, and a wise and compassionate view of the complexities of human nature.”
—Kirkus Reviews
, pointer review

“In this wonderfully realized, sensate novel, Fox's unadorned prose is anything but austere … In a forthright manner, she sets each scene and paints her thoroughly compelling, complex characters.”
—School Library Journal
, starred review

Western Wind
, in the tradition of the best young-adult fiction, manages to capture the essence of Elizabeth's transformation from a self-absorbed adolescent to a more tolerant, loving person.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Fox delves into a child's deepening awareness … of her grandmother's values as a person, a painter, and an elder facing death with dignity. Fox's style especially suits this taut narrative.”
—The Bulletin
, starred review

“Lyrical … laced with striking images and similes.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Well crafted.”

Western Wind

Paula Fox

For Adam Burley

… we spend our years as a tale that is told.

—Psalm 90:9


Six months after Elizabeth Benedict was born, her grandmother, Cora Ruth Benedict, moved to Maine. Now, eleven years later, Elizabeth was to spend the month of August with her on a small island in Penobscot Bay she had never seen, in a cottage without electricity or plumbing.

“What is there to do there? What will I
?” Elizabeth asked her father, Charles.

“There'll be plenty to do: swim—”

“Swim! I know about Maine swimming. You turn into a tray of ice cubes as soon as you stick your toe into that water,” she said.

“The water is warmer in the coves,” Daddy said.

“Coves!” exclaimed Elizabeth scornfully.

Daddy laughed. “That's the first time I ever heard
used as a swear word.”

“What about food? Or do we live off the land?” Elizabeth asked.

Daddy ignored her sarcastic tone. “There's a boat that comes to the island once a week from Molytown on the mainland. It'll bring groceries and mail—and we'll expect weekly letters from you.”

“Groceries? Canned corn … stale bread,” Elizabeth muttered.

“You have a poor attitude about this, my girl. You love Gran. Don't you? What's eating you?”

Elizabeth flushed and turned away. Love had nothing to do with it. She began to flip the pages of a law journal on a nearby table. Daddy knew what was eating her. She wasn't going to put into words what she felt—he would argue with her then, the way he probably did in court with a prosecutor.

She glanced at him over her shoulder. He was staring at her. She was startled by his expression, how uncertain he looked, as though he'd stumbled on evidence that didn't fit his case.

“I was going on the bicycle trip with Nancy to New Hampshire,” she said. “I've been thinking about it for months.”

She turned to face her father, feeling a faint hope she might still persuade him to go back to the original plan for August.

“The trip was only for a week. You can do that any summer. You're going to Gran, and that's that,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Found guilty,” Elizabeth said under her breath.

Her father smiled. She recognized the powerful grown-up smile of a parent who has made up his mind absolutely.

She started across the room to the door of the study.

“Where are you going?” he asked pleasantly.

“To pack winter clothes for August in Maine,” she said as coolly as she dared.

Old Mrs. Benedict was not a grandmother in name only, as some of her friends' grandmothers were. Elizabeth, her father, her mother, Emilia, and Gran had visited each other as far back as she could remember. The younger Benedicts would go to Maine for a week or so as soon as Elizabeth's school closed for summer recess. They stayed in a bed-and-breakfast inn outside of Camden, where Gran had a small apartment overlooking a street that, she told Elizabeth, filled up with snow in winter and tourists in summer.

Ten years ago, Gran started renting the cottage on the island during July and August. It was a good place for a painter, she said. None of the Benedicts had visited her there. It was too hard to get to, Gran insisted, and it certainly wasn't big enough for four people. “We'd go mad!” she'd said.

“Why does she need two places at her age?” Elizabeth heard her father ask her mom. “In some ways, she's as extravagant as an adolescent.”

“She's a painter,” her mother had replied. “They never grow older than the age at which they began to paint.”

It wasn't, Elizabeth knew, that her mother didn't care for her mother-in-law. But there was a kind of hesitation in her feeling for Gran, like a hiccup before you get out a word.

Elizabeth could hear that hesitation in the way her mother laughed, always a few seconds late, at something odd or comical Gran said. And she could see it when Gran came through the front door of their farmhouse north of Boston at Christmas, carrying her old morocco leather suitcase in one hand and a shopping bag of gifts in the other. Mom would nearly always wait a minute too long to hug her so that Gran, after a brief pause, would walk past her into the living room. Then she might say something like “I'm glad to see you haven't blocked up the fireplace yet” or “I hope you don't pull the shades down on these shorter days. The light is so smoky and mysterious. These folk around here tend to pull down their shades at five
, and they'll do it on the last day of the world.”

Elizabeth could see her mother's mouth tighten at the very moment she was trying to smile.

The farmhouse had been Gran's before she'd deeded it over to Elizabeth's father and his family the year she'd moved north. Before that, before Elizabeth had been born, the three of them had lived together while Charles Benedict was finishing law school.

Even though Elizabeth's mother had already begun teaching the fifth grade in a local public school and had regular paychecks, living with Gran had been a financial godsend, Daddy said. There hadn't been much money in those days.

Elizabeth understood how irritating Gran could be, yet she knew that her mother admired her. Elizabeth did, too. Though Gran didn't pay much attention to her as a rule, and she could be sharp.

One Thanksgiving, she'd told Elizabeth that if she described something as
once more, she'd have her arrested for melting down the English language.

“The police don't arrest you for that,” Elizabeth responded.

“I'll make a citizen's arrest,” said Gran, and burst into laughter.

That was how it often went between the young Benedicts and the old Benedict. Gran would say something cutting, then smile or laugh outright. But when she was around, there was an edge to the days, a kind of nervy liveliness. Even Elizabeth's father, a rather silent man, would grow talkative, arguing with Gran about painters he thought were better than she did, or about the government, which he thought worse than she did, and about a dozen other things. The hundred-year-old conversation, Elizabeth called it in her mind.

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