Transcending the Great Depression

Entering Ephesus By Daphne Atlas Second Chance Press 442 pp., $24.95

ENTERING Ephesus" opens in 1939 while the United States economy is still in the grip of the Great Depression. It is the story of a New England family that loses its Massachusetts mansion and migrates to a tumbledown farmhouse in an all-black section of Ephesus, N.C. Although the members of the Bishop family are cultured, well-read, and brilliant to varying degrees, they experience such a dizzying reorientation in life that their perceptions of reality soon begin to transform.

The frosty, upper-class self-consciousness of the family suffers embarrassment in a thousand petty ways. Desperation drives them to new extremities. To stay warm in winter, they tear boards from their rented barn for firewood. Clara, the mother, pawns family heirlooms from a tradition dating back to the Mayflower and snitches lamb chops for the family dinner. The front porch collapses. Bricks fall out of the chimneys. Their inhibitions loosen.

Although the father, PQ, is a Greek immigrant self-starter, his head is filled with ancient philosophies while his pockets are empty of coin. In one scene, he is depicted sitting alone in a house devoid of furniture reading Plutarch under a naked light bulb.

PQ's daughters, however, fairly incandesce with vitality. Although eldest daughter, Irene, never quite shakes off her status-consciousness, Loco Poco, the youngest, is a bright sprite of whimsy and Zen-centeredness. To ward off World War II, Loco eats flower petals and communicates with imaginary beings.

Urie, the hard-driving analytical middle daughter, befriends schoolmate Zebul Walley, a hardscrabble intellectual who hordes stolen library books in his chicken coop hermitage.

In Ephesus, the Bishops encounter friendship, love, and death. The strains of their classical music on one evening are answered on another evening by Baptist hymns from their listening black neighbors. Their daily lives are punctuated by the chiming of a tower bell that has one discordant note.

By the time the war economy starts to normalize their lives, the Bishops have lived about as close to the unprotected edge of existence as they can. As such, the time of entering Ephesus has been for them the era of their lives that tells them who they are.

Daphne Athas, who teaches literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, composed her novel from a migration in her own youth during which she made lists of everything that struck her as particularly Southern. Apparently it was these careful notations from girlhood that enabled Athas to weave the South's soft luxuriance into the Bishop family's daily struggle for survival as well as to portray the experience of adolescence so vividly.

Though the characters come off as uniquely individualistic, one wonders if any family portrayed at such depth and with such intensity wouldn't seem just as idiosyncratic.

If the book has a serious flaw, it would be that the author's philosophic fingers poke through the fiction's velvet glove. Not everyone among the presumed readers will be persuaded that the notions of God, morality, causality, and beauty are merely categories of conventional thought.

What the book can achieve for the reader is the prying up of calcifications of thought and habits of perception. The story captures like a firefly in a jar something of the essence of being alive.

When "Entering Ephesus" was first published in 1971, it provided a sensory and imaginative escape from the fixation on getting ahead that was just then becoming prevalent in corporate America. Time magazine selected it as one of the 10 best novels of the year. Re-released in today's steadily down-turning economy, this tale of transcending Depression-era hardship is more likely to exorcise middle-class nightmares of personal ruin.

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