My experience with Jack Gantos has been through two mediums: his Joey Pigza books and his memoir, Hole in My Life. So, to say the least, Gantos’ The Love Curse of the Rumbaugh’s was a little bit of a departure from the humor of Joey Pigza and the biography/realism of Hole in My Life. Love Curse dives right into the gothic, crafting a narrative that spans several generations and uses an inherited curse as a way of tracing through story and experience.
The Rumbaugh curse manifests as an obsessive and compulsive love for a mother by her child. The first time the reader sees how this curse plays out is in the introduction of the Rumbaugh twins, Abner and Adolph, proprietors of the local pharmacy. When young protagonist Ivy discovers the twins’ deceased mother in the basement of the pharmacy, she realizes that the twins’ penchant for taxidermy has extended to preserving their mother, even after her death. The discovery ignites Ivy’s own manifestation of the Rumbaugh curse. She begins to view her mother as a fragile and temporary person in her life. She worries incessantly about the impending death of her own mother, and begins to prepare for the actuality of losing her. She contacts the Rumbaugh twins and becomes a student of their taxidermy. She starts by practicing on one of her dolls, following the instructions from Taxidermy for Fun and Profit, a book that she takes out of the library. When her first attempt at taxidermy is found in another room in the Kelly Hotel (where Ivy lives with her mother), her mother suspects that the curse has been passed on to her daughter. Although she tries to dissuade Ivy from continuing along this route, there is a resignation to Ivy’s mother that seems to insist that the Rumbaugh curse is unavoidable. Ivy is destined towards the same compulsion.
The idea of the curse passing on unavoidably from generation to generation sets up a nature/nurture debate in the novel, which Ivy is constantly arguing about with the Rumbaugh twins. For a short period of time, Ivy believes that by changing her environment – by leaving the small town she lives in, the Kelly Hotel, and the Rumbaugh pharmacy – she can avoid the curse. The Rumbaughs, however, believe that the curse runs through blood and that there is nothing Ivy can do to change her situation. The curse is a destiny. It is predetermined. This debate runs through the novel, as does a discussion of free will and the ability to have choice in how an individual future unfolds.
Ivy eventually accepts her part in the curse. When she turns sixteen years old, her mother divulges the secret of Ivy’s blood connection to the Rumbaugh twins, and Ivy understands that the curse is a part of her. She practices taxidermy on small animals, entering contests where she creates whimsical displays that re-enact scenes out of fairy tales. The Rumbaugh twins recognize her as one of them and encourage her talent and propensity towards taxidermy. Ivy realizes she is practicing and preparing for her eventual use of taxidermy on her own mother, who she wishes to keep near her even after her inevitable death.
The focus on taxidermy adds an incredible gothic feeling to the novel, which in turn gives the story a timelessness. Ivy’s narration is first person, and it allows the reader to get right inside her head and encounter the curse firsthand. She becomes a likeable and charming narrator, even though the story she communicates is anything but that.
A few more things that I loved about this book:
1. This quote: “I was still too young to understand that most lies were not about stealing or fighting or cheating but were just ways by which a person shrinks their whole world down to a size they can keep protected in the palm of one hand.”
2. The book Goodnight Moon makes a brief appearance, as do the lines, “with the kittens and mittens and bowl of mush.” I love seeing references to more recent books for children and young adults in novels, instead of having most of the references be to the classics (which is great, but it’s also really nice to be able to connect to contemporary books that appear in contemporary books and to be able to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve read that! Recently!”).
3. The timelessness of the novel. The aspects of the gothic call on a nostalgia that seems to suggest that the novel is set in a time period much less recent than it actually is. I had to keep reminding myself that the novel is set closer to the present. The continuous flashbacks and references to the Rumbaugh ancestors allows for the time leaping; passing on historical family stories adds to the insistence that the past repeats through narrative. For example, one story that is communicated is of an early Rumbaugh ancestor who, during the Civil War, ensured that families would collect insurance money once their family members were killed in battle. However, because it was difficult to find and collect the bodies, the Rumbaugh ancestor would use surgery and taxidermy to reconstruct a body for a head, which could be used to identify the individual for insurance purposes. The book is inflated by the gothic, and going back in time to an era like the Civil War, when the American gothic novel was fully in effect, draws the contemporary into that same feeling of the past.