Joan Chase, at 81; her first novel illuminated the lives of four girls on a rural farm
Open Joan Chase’s first novel to any page and her sentences shimmer as they cascade down the page.
“For as long as we could remember we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world,” begins the second section of “During the Reign of the Queen of Persia,” published in 1983 to acclaim and honors including the PEN/Hemingway award.
A first-time author at 46, Ms. Chase drew from childhood summers on a family farm in Ohio, and from her own close bond with cousins. The novel is narrated by a collective “we” — four cousins, the two sets of sisters whose eyes and words record a changing world that is now long gone. “Lopsided buckboards” jostle for space on roads alongside swift automobiles and “black-canopied buggies of the plain people, whose faces reflected the timeless, ordered certainties of their innocence.”
On the family farm, “most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal,” Ms. Chase wrote. “Beyond the window glass the spruce trees were black and the sky ran silver around their silhouettes. The day smelled like clear water coming in through the open window which our mothers said must be raised at night for health and inspiration.”
After that auspicious start as a writer, Ms. Chase published just two more books — a second novel and a collection of stories — and she had finished the manuscript of an as-yet unpublished novel when she died Tuesday.
She was 81, had lived in Somerville, and had struggled in recent years to keep writing while trying to stave off the effects of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
In 1983, Margaret Atwood praised “During the Reign” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, calling it “moving, unusual and accomplished.” Atwood placed the novel in the company of Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” and Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women.”
Ms. Chase’s first novel was a fiction finalist for National Book Critics Circle Awards. Along with the PEN/Hemingway, Ms. Chase won a Whiting Award and a Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, and she received a Guggenheim fellowship.
The attention was rewarding and somewhat intimidating. “She was interested in the work, but not in the hype,” said her husband, Alec Solomita.
“She was very publicity shy — she was famous for that,” he added. “She did, I think, two interviews and then gave it up. She hated it.”
In an interview for the reference publication “Contemporary Authors,” Ms. Chase said that “the success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel. But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.”
The experience, she said, made her long “for the good old days of anonymity of isolation . . . except, of course, I was also delighted to have an audience.”
She published her second novel, “The Evening Wolves,” in 1990. “Bonneville Blue,” a collection of stories, appeared the following year.
In a Los Angeles Times review of “Wolves,” Richard Eder praised “her ability to use narrative as a translucent scrim. Behind what each speaker has to say about herself, we get a deeper view of what she is and might be.”
“I don’t know where I thought I was going, into the rain, no umbrella, no one at home,” one of the book’s narrators says. “Rain sheeted the glass, swirls of paper and twigs sucked along to the storm drain. It was a good thing no one came around until I got control of myself, because I wouldn’t have been able to hide my feelings. Although when your mother’s dead everybody thinks they already know your troubles.”
The oldest of three children, Joan Lucille Strausbaugh was born in her grandmother’s home in Wooster, Ohio, a part of the state where she set “During the Reign.” Her parents were Warren Strausbaugh and the former Lucille Opal Keister. Ms. Chase’s family moved often for her father’s series of teaching positions, and nonacademic jobs during World War II.
“The most significant event of her life was her mother’s death,” Ms. Chase’s husband said. “She was 12, and after her mother died, her father remarried, but she was very instrumental in taking care of her younger siblings. She was almost like a mother to them.”
She graduated from Northwestern High School in Adelphi, Md., and, against her father’s wishes, majored in philosophy at the University of Maryland. While in college she worked summers at a Rangeley, Maine, resort where she met Richard Chase, whom she married in 1959.
They had two children and he was a college professor in Vermont when she began writing. After they divorced, she moved to Illinois and was an administrator for the Ragdale retreat for artists and writers when she met Solomita, a poet whose chapbook “Do Not Forsake Me,” published last year, is a tribute to Ms. Chase.
During many of their years together she lived in Vermont, including in a Brattleboro house “with a beautiful place for gardening and a rushing brook down below,” he said. In 2009, they married as her illnesses worsened, and they lived in Somerville.
“She was an intensely hard worker,” he said. “When she was writing a novel, it was always on her mind. She’d take walks with me and talk about the problems with the book.”
A memorial service will be announced for Ms. Chase, who in addition to her husband leaves a son, Christopher of Pittsburgh; a daughter, Melissa Grabau of Sacramento; a brother, Larry Strausbaugh of Portland, Ore.; a sister, Linda Kaye Moore of Denver; and two granddaughters.
Ms. Chase’s unpublished manuscript is a novel called “My Nervous Heart,” which draws from her time as a waitress in Maine.
“I did not approach writing as a career,” she said in the “Contemporary Authors” interview. “It came along as a way of expressing myself, the first way I’d found suggestive enough, private and leisurely enough, to be worth the effort of approaching the complexities of living and giving voice to the situation. I never thought of writing as a way to earn a living but as a way of exhausting myself, engaging with my material, using everything I could find, inside and out.”
The New York Review of Books republished “During the Reign” in 2014. In an introduction, the poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke said that “the book has a dreamlike quality of immersion, as if time were not a river but a pool.”
One of the book’s aunts — the mothers of the cousins who narrate the story — learns early on that she has cancer. At one point, she says: “I have come to know that living and dying are a single event when considered by the mind of God.”