In her first book, Beauty Before Comfort,
author Allison Glock characterizes the heroine of this memoir, her grandmother,
the vivacious Aneita Jean Blair, as the regenerative American. She is the
archetypal New Woman trapped in time and obliged to rebel against the traditional
moral eschatology espoused by the folks who listen attentively to the salvific
messages of sundry preachers from Billy Sunday to the Rev. Mr. Pigg.
Jean, who bears a striking resemblance to the actress Gloria Grahame -- she
who tried heartily to seduce the punctilious Jimmy Stewart in the classic
film, It’s A Wonderful Life -- has but two goals: to make herself
as “beautiful” as possible, and to get out of Chester, West Virginia! In
the first objective she succeeds wonderfully, in the second she comes up
a little short.
Eliot once wrote that, “One needs the enemy,” and for Aneita Jean the enemy
was men: a sullen, splenetic father, a phalanx of young men who sought her
charms and attention, “Petey Dink,” her brother, who had the temerity to
die at twenty, and her husband, Don, who had the good form to love his community
and his place in it. For Aneita Jean happiness was at best transient, a solipsistic
visitor available only during the lady’s toilette.
does not pull her punches. Her descriptions of kith and kin, friend and enemy,
neighbor and townsmen are ruthless, tender, sarcastic, loving, and cruel.
She despises the provincialism of Chester and Newell, West Virginia, the
stereotypical toothless hillbillies, the men who hunt meat with guns and
eat what they kill, smoke unfiltered Camel cigarettes on their front porches,
and live in tacky, clapboard sided “company” houses, but she gives grudging
approbation to the same people who work hard, care for their families, and
when their nation calls, voluntarily join the ranks of citizen-soldiers.
provides histories of the Ohio River towns of Chester and Newell, West Virginia,
conjuring up a fluid and vivid prose that carries the grandeur of the place
with accuracy and insight. She pays special attention to the pottery industry
-- gleaned from Straffordshire, England a hundred and thirty years ago --
that provides the majority of jobs in the area. She understands and explains
the pride pottery people take in their work; that these people aren’t just
workers, they are artisans who make beautiful ware that was and is shipped
throughout the world. She fires the obligatory egalitarian round at the pottery
magnates, particularly the Wells family, the owners of Homer Laughlin China,
the producers of Fiesta ware. However, the Wells’ have exhibited a decided
loyalty to their community, they continue on in Newell, West Virginia, still
making ware, still providing hundreds of jobs.
the subject of the memoir is Aneita Jean Blair, whose life seemed hopelessly
snarled in neurotic self-absorption and admittedly moments of exegetical
genius, there are far too few glimpses of strong willed family members who
persevered against staggering odds. Particularly Don Thornberry, Ms. Glock’s
grandfather and Aneita Jean’s long suffering husband. A hard working, self-made
man who started a grocery business after returning home from the war. He
fed the poor, cared for his babies when Aneita Jean’s neurosis overwhelmed
her, and he suffered the obloquies of his sick wife, almost in silence. If
anyone deserved a memoir it was Don Thornberry.
book is in one sense a search for self, a search for who she is and where
she came from. Her research is substantive and meticulous. She has looked
under all the rocks, and examined the dusty closets of lives well lived.
The incubus came as they often do, but it did not speak of redemption; so
it remains to be seen whether or not the demon was exorcised.
Glock’s writing is honest, clever, and elegant with just a suggestion of
East Coast hauteur. She has established herself as a significant writer destined
to attend many a wine and cheese party, lecture at writing clinics, and participate
in the odd seminar in Academe but in the end, whether she understands or
not, she is that most beautiful of specie: a West Virginia girl!
Beauty Before Comfort is available on Amazon.com.
Bob Cheeks has written for The American Enterprise, Human Events, Southern Partisan, and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review.