Life Among the Savages

By Shirley Jackson (Penguin edition, 1997; orig. pub. Farrar and Rinhart, 1953)

There are scads of books about motherhood out there, and obviously most are crap. I’m okay with that; I know I can always re-read Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. Last week, I sent an email to a friend who was going mad trying to work on a book while tending her two small children. It wasn’t going so well. She described her domestic scene and said, “On days like this, I wish I liked the taste of alcohol.” My immediate response was that she would simply have to find a copy of Life Among the Savages. “When I went into the hospital to deliver our daughter,” I wrote, “I took one – ONE – book with me, and it was Life Among the Savages.”

Shirley Jackson is best known for her creepy fiction. “The Lottery” is one of the most anthologized of short stories; The Haunting of Hill House has been filmed twice. Writers cite her; there’s a literary award named after Jackson. The creepy stuff is fine, I’ve got nothing against it, but for my money Life Among the Savages is Jackson’s masterpiece. Laura Shapiro cites it as a touchstone in the “literature of domestic chaos,” which it is, but to me it’s more than that. Jackson’s fictionalized account of her life with her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, is wise on marriage, on why urbanites don’t belong in Vermont, on cats, on the folly of gun ownership, on children, and on why it is that, when everyone gets sick, blankets will go missing.

Eva Geertz, a bookseller, lives in New Haven.