by Eireene Nealand
When it comes to expressing anything other than absolute adoration for one’s children – including the process of creating them – women, all too often, are shushed. Therefore, Micah Perks is navigating a dangerous territory in What Becomes Us, when she likens pregnancy to captivity, one that, moreover, frees the protagonist from the colonial life in which she’s been trapped. Spoiler Alert: Evie Rosen, the protagonist of What Becomes Us, is not opposed to motherhood. Rather, as an introvert, made insecure by an overcertain husband, she is hesitant about closeness: after carrying twins inside of her, she will never be able to express herself as anything other than a ‘we.’ Hesitancy about closeness too is taboo this is what makes Perks’ novel so interesting. Like its protagonist What Becomes Us is a shy book, questioning established taboos through a series of formal elements, rather than defiant monologues.
The ur-text of What Becomes Us is America’s first ever best seller: The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. After escaping her husband, by jumping out of the second-story window of her house, Evie Rosen encounters the book in upstate New York, where she has been hired as a school teacher. The teacher she is to replace was fired for teaching The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson as a Fundamentalist Christian text, even though his students seem to have enjoyed the book. As Evie reads, she becomes obsessed with the tale of the Massachusetts Bay colonist, captured by Narragansett Indians during King Phillips’ War. Like a pregnant woman, Rowlandson is perpetually hungry – yet there’s also something more: the uncanny encounter with others labeled as savage that helps one to accept a taboo savagery in oneself.
It’s mainly in her sleep that Evie identifies with Rowlandson (and Quinnipin and Weetamoo, the Narragansetts who purchase Rowlandson as a slave). Suspecting that she has been haunted by ghosts she dreams and sleepwalks and steals objects associated with the characters, unconsciously placing them in her own house. The slips between the occult and subconscious are subtle ways of expressing discomfort and fear about joining both the Upstate New York community and the tribal family community one enters when one has children.
That is not the only oddity of the book. Perhaps in order to make her taboo characterization of pregnancy more palatable, Perks has chosen Evie’s unborn twins to narrate the book. They allow readers to feel a bit safer when Evie expresses unloving thoughts about her husband, such as “she was the mortar and she was the pestle,” but more than that, in being twins, they express a closeness and community that Evie knows she is supposed to feel. Take for example, these lines:
Each an inch long, we are see-through things…the liquor we swim in, and the liquor [that] passes through us…How much did Scheherazade love the Sultan? Or Joseph love Pharaoh? Or Huck and Jim love their raft? How can we pry apart love and need? Three minutes without her and our hearts would stop. Mother is an agnostic but we know the three of us are not alone (8).
The twins are intimately comfortable with one another, although when it comes to their mother there’s a slight hesitancy, mentioned in the lines about ‘love and need’ and Joseph and the Pharaoh. Helpfully, this makes the love complex, more interesting than the wholesome all sacrificing love of the usual book on mothering.
For Perks, mother love (and perhaps all love) is tribal. Indeed, my favorite part of What Becomes Us is having a chance to meet members of the Appalachian community Evie finds herself in. Delightful characters, such as Margaret, a middle-aged town gossip turned blogger, and River, a rebellious teen determined not to let education get in the way of learning don't make love easy, nor does the double bind Evie finds herself in when she befriends Joan, a peace activist-on-parole, who happens to be married to the book-loving mechanic that Evie eventually falls in love with. To find her place in this town Evie has to navigate the complicated set of alliances: Loving a man, hurting a friend, being a stern but friendly teacher/mentor to the children she sees in and out of school. Thus, while the twins swim about in the easy womb of ‘we,’ Evie introduces us to the figure of a tribal woman who is much more than the do-gooding, all loving sacrificial lamb we are led to believe mothers are meant to be. In the end, the book isn’t rebellious so much as realistic, reminding us that the exhilarating-horrify activity of throwing oneself in others, whether through friendship, love, or motherhood, is not something one can ever aspire to perfect or glow with. Like any birth it's an ugly-beautiful glorious mess.