In 1979, two young women face the same sad circumstance when each discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant. For the sake of her life-plans, twenty-two-year-old Anna chooses an abortion, while sixteen-year-old Cerise, lonely, awkward, and without Anna’s firm sense of a future, decides to have a baby. While Anna goes on to find deep satisfaction in her career as a fine art photographer and a college professor, and—later—as a mother, Cerise discovers unanticipated pleasure in raising her daughter, even as she struggles daily to make ends meet.
When Anna’s husband loses his job and tragedy robs Cerise of a young son, the two women meet and forge an unexpected friendship that ends up affecting each of them in profound—and profoundly moving—ways.
Windfalls is a courageous and compassionate examination of the challenges of contemporary motherhood, as well as a celebration of the potential for growth and transformation that parenting, art, and human relationships can offer.
In addition to the American edition, Windfalls has also been published in the UK, Germany, and France. The French edition, translated by Nathalie Bru, was released by Éditions Phébus in August 2021 and has received enthusiastic critical reviews from many sources, including Le Monde and Elle. It was one of the best-selling foreign novels of the 2021 literary season, and ranked 4th on Livres Hebdo list of top foreign novels.
The audio version of Apaiser nos tempêtes, read by Maia Baran, was released in January, 2022 and has been nominated for the Prix Audiolib 2022.
Apaiser nos tempêtes, translated by Nathalie Bru, was released by Éditions Phébus in August 2021 and has received passionate responses from readers as well enthusiastic critical reviews from many sources, including Le Monde (“rare and visceral…magnificent”) and Elle (“empathetic and fine”). It was one of the best-selling foreign novels of the 2021 literary season, and ranked 4th on Livres Hebdo list of top foreign novels.
The audio version of Apaiser nos tempêtes, read by Maia Baran, was released in January 2022 and has been nominated for the Prix Audiolib 2022.
The decision whether or not to keep a child alters the lives of two young, single women in this moving if rather programmatic second novel by Hegland (Into the Forest). Telling parallel stories that ultimately converge, Hegland explores the value of work, art, family ties and the singular bond between women and their children. Anna, a graduate photography student, has an abortion, eventually marries and has two children; Cerise, a high school sophomore, keeps her baby, raises it on her own, ekes out a living and later has another child. In following the course of their very different lives, Hegland describes a full range of maternal emotions and experiences—the mind-numbing exhaustion; the weight of responsibility; the fierce desire to protect; the boundless joys and heartbreaking sorrows. When a tragic fire results in the death of Cerise’s second child and the loss of her home, Hegland illuminates the plight of homeless people and demonstrates how easy it is to lose one’s sense of self. Cerise hides behind a new identity, as “Honey,” and finds a job at a day-care center, where her resolve and sense of purpose in the face of heart-shattering grief are remarkable. Meanwhile, Anna’s life is upended when her husband’s sudden unemployment forces a move to California from her family’s Washington homestead. Circumstances force her back into the workforce, and Hegland brings fresh insight to the struggle working mothers face in juggling home life with their careers. When Honey becomes a caretaker for Anna’s two young children, a curious bond develops between Anna and Honey as the two women strive to find a sense of purpose in their lives. The result is a powerful, life-changing experience for both of them, bringing Hegland’s novel to a poignant, thought-provoking conclusion.
To be a mother or an artist? Or both?
Anyone interested in women’s quest stories that explore these central questions will find Jean Hegland’s second novel, Windfalls, to be essential reading. Readers who know the Palouse will enjoy her vivid descriptions of Spokane and eastern Washington. Indeed the entire book seems to cast a golden-red glow on the lives of its struggling main characters, Cerise and Anna, like the “last ruddy light. . . , burnishing the fields and illuminating the roses, deepening the crimson” in a Palouse sunset.
Hegland (B.A. ’79) earns a solid place for Windfalls in the tradition of women’s quest novels headed by international literary stars such as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Drabble. The double quest of Cerise and Anna will please readers who enjoy strong plots that focus on the characters’ confrontations with devastating life events that forever change them. The single mother, Cerise, loses both her beloved son as well as her home, a modest trailer, in a fire after her artistically gifted daughter, Melody, decides to leave home in anger. With her entire world engulfed by smoke, Cerise moves forward, refusing to surrender to the moment. The privileged and comfortable Anna learns painfully that the middle-class demands of marriage and motherhood threaten to extinguish her life as a photographer. When her husband loses tenure in Washington and takes a position in California, she finds herself unable to loosen the ties to her two daughters long enough in this new place to view it through her camera lens.
When they meet accidentally, Cerise is a homeless bag lady named Honey who has found a position in a day care center and reveals extraordinary artistic talent as well as profound psychological insights into children. Eventually Cerise enters Anna’s household as a babysitter and enables Anna to re-emerge as a photographer. But Cerise’s journey does not stop here. Anna, as the reader will discover, unknowingly helps Cerise find her daughter through her photography.
By the end of the novel, all the questions seem resolved, at least momentarily, and everyone is happily repositioned. Even Cerise’s wandering no longer seems driven by catastrophe. We are left with the confidence that she, too, has found her own “gentle light” in “the mutilated world” that Hegland has created. Disasters may seem to take away the dreams of the Cerises and Annas, but their innate human creativity, coupled with “the world’s rough grace,” empowers them to re-find their centers or to build new lives. Their stories of courage in Windfalls offer hard-won wisdom to us in this new world in which we find ourselves following Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of 9/11.
—Camille Roman, Washington State magazine
Anna, an unmarried and pregnant college student in Washington State braves a crowd of protesters to get an abortion. She’s relieved to resume her schooling and the photography she loves, but she never minimizes the loss of life. Soon she drifts into a general depression, burning her photographs and unable to shoot more. Her life seems as empty as her body.
California teenager Cerise punishes herself for her forlorn awkwardness by burning her wrists on a hot iron. Feeling grateful for the attention and yet disconnected from what’s happening, she sleeps with a boy she meets. Soon, she’s pregnant and being counseled in a LifeRight office. Cerise informs her angry mother that she will keep her baby, and the LifeRight people help her move into her own apartment and apply for welfare. Despite her sudden popularity at school due to her exotic condition, she’s soon too tired to care. She drops out of school and doesn’t care when her boyfriend finds a new girlfriend.
Ten years pass. Cerise is now cleaning a nursing home to support her beloved daughter Melody. Despite her poverty, she takes joy in her little family. Anna is equally content — married, living in her grandparents’ old house, and expecting a child.
Life takes a downward turn for both women, however. Anna finds herself pregnant with her second child just as her husband loses his job. They are forced to move to California, away from family and friends. Anna’s second daughter has health problems at birth, while her older child has trouble adapting to her new school. Anna has never regained the art that sustained her at one time; she can no longer lose herself in her photography.
Cerise struggles with Melody, who has become a hostile teenager. When Cerise consoles herself with a boyfriend, she finds herself pregnant. Travis is born, and his father vanishes. In an attempt to better herself, Cerise starts college. But an unbearable tragedy strikes soon after Melody leaves home forever. Cerise escapes to the forest, meeting a woman who tells her, “Healing is the human task. Your job is to heal.” Cerise, homeless and nearly senseless with desperation, walks miles alone in her quest for healing. Her journey eventually leads to meeting Anna, now a college teacher, and the women draw power from the intersection of their lives.
Since I read Jean Hegland’s first novel, the amazing INTO THE FOREST, I’ve been eagerly anticipating her second. WINDFALLS, in many ways a totally different work, continues her theme of how difficult yet possible survival is, no matter how far we fall.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted feel-good escape, try another book. This is a hefty, thought-provoking, densely plotted tome, filled with intense tragedy and subtle uplifting redemption. Some of the devastating events that befall these two women are almost physically painful to read. There were moments when I nearly closed the book for good because of the bleak subject matter. But by then I was in the power of a master storyteller and firmly entrenched in these women’s lives — I had to find out what happened to them. I persevered and was glad I did. The tremendous emotional payoff was more than worth it.
—Terry Miller Shannon, Bookreporter.com
“Jean Hegland is a master storyteller, capable of breaking and warming your heart in equal measure. She captures real life on these pages. WINDFALLS is a wonderful book of family and hard-won grace. I cannot recommend it highly enough: Hegland’s characters will become part of your life.”
—Roy Parvin, author of In the Snow Forest
“Jean Hegland is a compassionate novelist whose characters are at once archetypal and personal. In WINDFALLS, she has created an elegy to motherhood in all its painful, beautiful complexity.”
—Joelle Fraser, author of The Territory of Men
“Harrowing and vividly real, WINDFALLS offers a lyrical portrayal of two women’s lives, one of privilege, one of poverty. Hegland writes with precision about the many facets of motherhood—the necessary courage and the inevitable compromise. Her book is a terrific act of sympathy and understanding.”
—Lisa Michaels, author of Grand Ambition
“As in INTO THE FOREST, Jean Hegland continues to ask the questions most of us avoid, and offers answers that surprise and sustain us all.”
—Kathleen Alcala, author of Treasures in Heaven
“Here is a lovely novel by a writer who understands the consequences of the greatest blessing we can bestow upon one another, that of our physical touch; and who knows that all we really have in common in this world are the ways we can be broken.”
—Don J. Snyder, author of Of Time and Memory
“Hegland has crafted a powerfully imagined and beautifully written examination of the way a single choice can lead us inexorably to places we never thought we’d go….Hegland’s first novel was picked up by a major publisher after it caught the attention of both booksellers and readers, and her second lives up to its promise.”
—Meredith Parets, Booklist
“A powerful, extremely moving tale about motherhood, the choices we make, and the impact we can have on one another. Highly recommended.”
—Robin Nesbin, Library Journal
“Hegland’s unswerving focus on social issues—the cost of motherhood, the plight of the homeless—makes this a good prospect for reading groups.”
Book Group Guide
- Why do you think Jean Hegland chose to call her novel Windfalls? Do you think it is a good title for the book? Why or why not?
- The novel opens with a lyrical description of one of Anna’s photographs — of a lone tree on a barren windswept hillside beneath a stormy sky, its trunk split almost in two. What purpose do the tree and its photograph serve in the novel and in the lives of the two main characters?
- Both Anna and Cerise find themselves facing unplanned pregnancies, but they make very different decisions about their lives. Were the choices they made the right ones for them at the time? Do they turn out to be wise decisions as their lives unfold?
- Windfalls has been described as a deeply moving novel about choices that most woman face at one time or another. Discuss the ways that life circumstances either force choices on us or take them away from us.
- Joelle Fraser, author of The Territory of Men, describes Windfalls as “an elegy to motherhood in all its painful, beautiful complexity.” Talk about the rapturous joys and heartbreaking sorrows and terrors of motherhood depicted in Windfalls. What other novels have you read or movies have you seen that deal with the theme of motherhood and its rewards and costs? How do they compare with Windfalls? How do these depictions compare to your personal observations and/or experience?
- What do you think of the way the author deals with the sensitive subject of abortion and a woman’s right to choose? Are her own views about abortion made clear in the novel? Should they be? Is it possible for a work of fiction to simply explore the human dimensions of a highly controversial political, moral, or religious issue without taking a stand? If you knew that an author’s views on a social issue you feel passionately about stood in opposition to your own, how do you think it would it affect your response to her novel?
- In Windfalls, Jean Hegland also explores such volatile contemporary social issues as welfare and homelessness. In an interview she gave after her acclaimed first novel, Into the Forest, Hegland explained that regardless of how important an author considers the themes of her fiction to be, “in a novel, it’s the story that comes first. It’s a challenge because one can get so fervent, but more is less when it comes to fervency.” Do you agree or disagree? Do you think she succeeds or fails in Windfalls in expressing the passions of her characters while keeping her own fervency in check?
- Anna’s decision to terminate her pregnancy is influenced by her impression of her sister’s life. “Sally had been a painter before Jesse was born. She had studied in Italy, had won awards but the woman she’d been then seemed to have vanished into the abyss of motherhood. Anna wondered how much art was lost to the world each time another baby was born. With a ferocity that nearly frightened her, she’d thought, I could never be like that.” Later on, when Anna marries and has two children of her own, how do her views change? Do you think she succeeds in balancing the conflicting demands of art and motherhood?
- Why do you think Anna asked to see what was taken from her body during the abortion? Did the request surprise you? How do you think her graphic image of what she saw affected her? Why do you think she never told anyone about her abortion, and why does she finally open up to Cerise toward the end of the novel?
- When Cerise was a teenager she often would deliberately burn her wrists with a heated iron, a mysterious craving to hurt herself that she could neither understand nor stop, but which disappeared when Melody was born. She is frantic when she witnesses her 14-year-old daughter plunging her forearm against the heated element of the stove. Talk about the overwhelming mix of love, fear, anger, and self-recrimination Cerise—or any mother—experiences as she watches her child behave in dangerous and self-destructive ways.
- What do you think of the way the novel is constructed as a series of alternating sections which focus on the separate lives of its two main characters? Talk about the way the author manages to intertwine their lives. Did you discover interesting parallels or unexpected differences between them?
- Discuss what Anna and Cerise learn from each other and from the other characters in the book. For example, what life lessons does Anna gain from her grandmother’s story of her stillborn daughter? How does the woman Cerise encounters in the forest help her to go on living when she longs to end her life? How does young Lucy help Cerise to cope with her grief over Travis?
Questions & Answers
While your first novel, Into the Forest, is a near-mythic tale about two sisters struggling to survive alone in the redwoods in a post-apocalyptic near future, Windfalls is very much a realistic story of our time—a profound exploration of the deepest feelings of mother love that also touches upon such timely issues as abortion and the plight of the homeless in our society. Are these two books as completely different as they appear on the surface, or are there any similarities? Do they share any common themes?
One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that it allows me to explore so many different aspects of experience. Given that, it makes sense (to me, at least) that my stories would all be quite different, as there are any number of characters and situations that interest me. After I finished my most recent novel, Still Time, my agent observed that it seemed as if all my books had different fathers!
But at the same time I’m sure there are parallels between my books that suggest their common source. Some of the most striking similarities between Into the Forest and Windfalls are that both books have two female protagonists; both put a specific, human face on abstract political issues, and—perhaps most significantly—there are characters in both stories who must confront losing the very things that gave the most meaning to their lives. How we humans manage to find the strength and hope to carry on—both in extremity and every day—is a question I could not possibly exhaust in a single book.
The idea for Into the Forest came to you one sleepless night. Where did the inspiration for Windfalls come from?
The “seed crystal” for Windfalls came from a small newspaper article about a woman who had lost a child in a terrible accident. I couldn’t stop thinking about that anonymous mother, and wondering how—or whether—she found a way to remake her life after that loss. The more I thought about her, the more I realized that a story about someone like I imagined that woman to be might serve as a container for many of the questions I was currently pondering in my own life—questions about mothering, and art, and home, and the web of circumstances, choices, and chances that make up our lives.
Do you think that maternal love is the most powerful bond there is? Do you think fathers experience similar feelings for their children, or is paternal love a different kind of emotion?
Certainly for many mothers, the love we feel for our children is one of the most powerful and enduring emotions we’ll ever have. I know a great number of mothers who have been blind-sided by the fierce passion and bottomless tenderness they feel for their children, as well as by the dreadful sense of precariousness that having a child introduces into even the most secure and privileged of lives.
One factor that helps to establish the intensity of that bond is the profound physicality of most mothers’ relationships with their children; pregnancy, childbirth and nursing all serve to reinforce that connection, and those are experiences that fathers can only know vicariously. But there are also many mothers who did not give birth to or nurse their babies but who nevertheless feel a connection to their children every bit as profound as mothers who did, and fathers (and other caregivers) can experience those intense bonds, too. In my observation, those fathers who have been able to spend extended periods of time with their children—not merely as babysitters, but as real, in-the-trenches caregivers—develop particularly deep, tender, and vital relationships with their kids.
Anna, one of your two main characters in Windfalls, is a photographer who struggles to find a balance between her commitment to her art and her two daughters. Do you think it is a difficult balance to achieve? How did you manage to find the time and emotional energy to write and teach while raising and home schooling your own children?
It’s a wobbly balance, and one I never felt I managed to achieve for more than a few lucky seconds at a time. Every day I tried to be ferocious about finding time to write, and every day I also tried to be equally committed to giving up my writing time graciously when the rest of my life intervened.
I doubt I could have found the energy to try to fit mothering and writing into the same lifetime if it weren’t for the fact that both mean so much to me—and also that I found them to be so mutually enriching. As for Anna, I know that for me (and hopefully for an increasing number of other women and men), my work made me a better parent, just as my parenting added a deeper dimension to my art. Both raising children and writing books require creativity, spontaneity, patience, and discipline, instinct, intuition, and analysis, a profound faith in the process, a deep engagement in the present, a generous sense of humor, an appreciation of the sacred, and the ability to be steadfast in the face of big messes.
Although Windfalls deals with the explosive issue of abortion, you don’t seem to take sides. Do you think there is a right and a wrong side to the issue?
I personally think that every abortion is a loss, and in an ideal world, a combination of self-restraint, contraception, and supportive social services would make abortion exceedingly rare. But I also believe that much greater losses and even deeper sorrows can result when abortion is not a safe, legal and available option.
But even more important than my own stance on reproductive freedom is my deep belief that abortion is too complex and important an issue to be reduced to a polarized controversy about right and wrong. Every unexpected pregnancy is a unique story, and rather than arguing about abortion as an abstract institution, I believe we should be examining the circumstances of women’s lives, and looking at the social, financial, spiritual, and personal factors that go into women’s individual decisions to nurture or forego the potential a human embryo represents. In the recent past, it has been difficult for women who have considered abortion to tell their stories because of the stigmas—and even the threats—they have had to face. For that reason, I believe that fiction is an especially good place to begin a healthy and multi-dimensional conversation about reproductive choices.
For a long while, Windfalls reads like two separate stories. In fact, readers may wonder if Anna and Cerise will ever even meet. What made you decide to give Windfalls that structure, and to focus your novel on two such very different women?
There’s an aspect of both inevitability and serendipity to the way people meet that I find very interesting, and I like how the structure of Windfalls mirrors that. But perhaps most importantly, I like how having two characters whose backgrounds, temperaments, and choices are seemingly so different helps to suggest which aspects of Cerise’s and Anna’s experience are universal, and which are particular to their unique circumstances and personalities.
In trying to get inside the experience of your characters, you applied for assistance at the country welfare office and volunteered at a drop-in support center for homeless women. What did you learn from your hands-on approach to research?
My characters are like imaginary friends. While I’m writing their stories they travel with me everywhere, and one of the reasons I’m able to work so long and hard on a book is that I feel a commitment to my characters to get their stories right. Research is a great aid to my imagination. If I can find a way to experience what a character might actually be seeing and hearing and touching and smelling and tasting in a given scene, it’s much easier for me to know how that character would think and feel, and what she would do and say.
Also, I think it’s very important to get the facts right in fiction. The sad truth is that writer can say all kinds of wise things about life and love and human nature, but if—for example—she puts the Golden Gate Bridge on the wrong side of the bay, all her brilliant insights will instantly lose some degree of credibility with those readers who are more familiar with the Bay Area than she is. In that way, I feel I’m always writing for the people who know more about a given field than I do. It’s a challenge, but I appreciate the opportunity it gives me to learn about all sorts of important and fascinating subjects.
At one point in the story, when Cerise is suffering almost unendurable pain, she meets a woman in the forest who reminds her that “healing is the human task.” Is that the message of hope and redemption that you are sending the reader in Windfalls?
There were many ways in which Windfalls was an emotionally challenging book to work on. It contains scenes I was able to write only because I believed they were so crucial to the story and so necessary to any honest examination of the costs and gifts of motherhood. There were moments when I cried as I wrote this novel, and I’ve been honored to hear from readers who say they wept as they read it. But despite the sadness the story contains, Windfalls is a deeply hopeful and life-affirming book, and I believe that the ability to heal—or at least the willingness to try—has got to be at the heart of hope.
Often a writer sets out to write a work of fiction only to discover that the completed novel is vastly different from the work originally envisioned. How did Windfalls evolve as you worked on it?
A wonderful thing about the time and work it takes me to write a novel is that it allows me to exceed my own grasp. My initial conception of Windfalls did not have nearly the depth and complexity I’d like to think the final draft contains. The longer I lived with Anna and Cerise, the better I got to know them and to understand the issues facing them, and also to appreciate their courage and their willingness to grow as human beings and as mothers.
One of the themes that became increasingly significant during the seven years I wrote and rewrote Windfalls is how raising children affects parents’ lives. For a long time I’ve been aware that the circumstances under which a woman has children can have an enormous impact on the practical and material aspects of her life, but until I had children of my own, I never really realized how profoundly our interactions with our children can affect our own development as human beings.
Up until very recently, there have been a great number of stories about what mothers do to us, but very few stories about what mothering does to us. I think there’s been an assumption that mothering is too mundane or sentimental a subject to be worthy of a novelist’s effort or a reader’s time, and yet writing Windfalls reinforced my conviction that there are few experiences as meaningful, significant, and potentially life-changing as having and raising children.
Three decades ago, when I became unexpectedly pregnant with my first child, I felt utterly unprepared to be a mother. I was thirty years old, in a stable marriage, and had a meaningful career I anticipated being able to continue after the baby was born. I had even looked forward to having children someday. But when wand of the drugstore pregnancy test turned positive, my reaction was much less so.
Outside of my own dear mother, I had few models for motherhood. I was the first of my siblings and nearly the first of my friends to become pregnant. I had not spent any time around babies or young children since my limited experience as a babysitter nearly two decades earlier. All I knew for sure as I stared incredulously at that implacable plastic wand was that I had no idea what I was getting into.
As my pregnancy progressed and the baby began to punch my guts like she was training to be a boxer, my feet were eclipsed by the full moon of my belly, and the morning sickness I’d been assured would cease after the first three months continued unabated, I felt as if my entire life were being subsumed by the stranger growing inside me. I found myself wondering with a kind of silent desperation why people ever chose to have children.
The moment my daughter was born, along with my relief at finally being rid of nine and a half months of constant nausea, I was astonished by the vastness, intensity, and constancy of the love I felt. Suddenly I had no doubt why people had babies. All of my former questions and pre-birth trepidations were swept away by my fierce and giddy obsession with the brand-new human being who had been born into my care.
But I quickly discovered that being a mother left me little room to be anything else. Even as my love for my daughter, and later, for her sister and their brother, continued to astound me, I was often floored by the exhaustion, anxiety, uncertainty, and boredom I also felt. I found myself looking at older women–seemingly sane women, who had done interesting things with their lives while also raising children who appeared to have become reasonable adults—and wondering how they’d even managed to survive.
As Adrienne Rich observes in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” When I tried to get those older mothers to tell me about how they had coped, what they had learned, and how they had been changed by mothering, even the most articulate and self-aware of them seemed to be reduced to clichés. At first their platitudes puzzled me, though I came to understand their lack of eloquence wasn’t because their feelings were superficial or their thoughts were banal, but because those feelings and thoughts were so private and so complicated that they existed in a place almost beyond the reach of words.
Using words to take us where words cannot go is the task of poets. A large number of poets in the English-speaking world, from Ben Jonson and Anne Bradstreet to Gary Snyder, Sharon Olds, and Camille T. Dungy, to name a very few, have written powerfully about pregnancy and parenting. But as much as their poems spoke to me, I also craved the deeper dive that novels have to offer. I wanted to be immersed in other parents’ lives even as I used their experiences to help make sense of my own. However, although a great deal of fiction had been written about the experience of having a mother or a father, there was very little that explored what it was like—and what it might mean—to actually be one.
Raising the next generation of humans is a crucial and relatively universal activity, and it is also rife with potential for the kind of conflict and character exploration that fuels many memorable novels. But even the supremely dramatic event of childbirth was conspicuously missing from fiction. While there are few physical experiences more intense, intimate, and revealing than sex, death, and childbirth, and while fiction offers innumerable gripping accounts of sex and death, I could not find many scenes that chronicled the pain, passion, and life-changing challenges of childbirth. Abortion, sterilization, and infertility are also complex, consequential, and potentially powerful subjects for fiction, and yet, despite all the public controversies surrounding them, in the late 1990s there were few novels that explored their effects on women’s lives.
Some of those omissions may be explained by the fact that, although women have been writing novels since the novel first emerged as a literary form in the eighteenth century, until quite recently, few female novelists have been mothers. As Tillie Olsen observes, “Indeed, in [the twentieth century] as in the last, until very recently almost all distinguished achievement has come from childless women.” Of course there were exceptions. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the book Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have claimed started the American Civil War, was written by a mother of six. But mothers did not begin to write novels in any significant numbers until the second half of the twentieth century. Even then, motherhood was not a common theme in their fiction. Given the secondary status to which patriarchy had long relegated women’s activities and experiences, perhaps those first novel-writing mothers might have felt reluctant to risk being dismissed as serious artists by exploring such a traditionally-gendered topic. Fortunately, parents’ experiences have become much more visible in fiction in recent years. Authors such as Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett, Brett Bennett, Marilynne Robinson, Perri Klass, Maggie O’Farrell, Celeste Ng, and Pete Fromm, to name a very few, have written novels that examine the impact of parenting on their characters’ lives, and I have every expectation that trend will continue.
My first novel was published when our youngest child was four. Although Into the Forest contained a birth scene, parenting was not a major theme in that story. My previous book, The Life Within: Celebration of a Pregnancy, had been an anthropological and scientific exploration of pregnancy, and I had written essays and even attempted some poems about my experiences of mothering. However, it didn’t occur to me to try to write a novel about mothers myself until a small article on the back page of a regional newspaper about a young woman’s tragedy happened to catch my eye. I can no longer recall the exact details of the article, but I vividly remember how disturbed I was by that unnamed stranger’s misfortune. As I wondered who that woman could have been and how she might possibly find a way heal, I realized those questions might well serve as fuel for a novel.
I decided to explore the lives of two women with seemingly little in common, women who had born into different circumstance and who make different choices when each of them becomes unexpectedly pregnant. By doing so I hoped to tease out some of the commonalities of their experience, while also conveying how unique a journey parenting always is, distinct to each parent, each situation, and each new child. I wanted to discover how motherhood changes my characters. I wanted to capture their joys, honor their struggles, and celebrate their courage and perseverance. I hoped to suggest some of the challenges that even mothers in privileged situations have to face, as well as show how infinitely more difficult it is for women in less supportive circumstances. I wanted to remind readers—and myself—of how friendship, art, and human kindness can affect our lives in unexpected and often incalculable ways.
The gestation period for novels is often much longer than it is for humans. It took me seven years to get to know Cerise and Anna well enough to tell their story. During that time, I learned about seed banks, dry land wheat farming, and graffiti artists. I interviewed midwives, labor and delivery nurses, and abortion providers. I hung out in darkrooms and photo labs, ate meals in homeless shelters, and spent many hours working as a volunteer in a program for homeless women.
Although I was careful never to use anything my own kids said or did directly in these pages, my ongoing life as a mother was a constant inspiration. Losing myself in the luscious and absorbing challenges of language and story-shaping had always been a profound satisfaction for me. Now, ironically, writing about motherhood enabled me to claim a space for myself inside my own life. I wrote mainly during my children’s naptimes and at night after they’d finally gone to bed. Thinking about mothering in the context of Cerise’s and Anna’s delights, trials, and discoveries helped me to face the frustrations, uncertainties, and doldrums of my own life as a mother with much more grace and equanimity than I would otherwise have mustered.
I hoped to write about my character’s lives without the sentimentality or the cynicism that seemed to characterize most of our culture’s narratives about motherhood. I wanted to find a way to dig beneath those dismissive clichés and capture a fuller experience, express more meaningful truths. By writing Windfalls, I hoped to encourage more honest conversations about what it might mean to raise children in the context of one’s own still-unfolding life.
Once published, a novel can seem like such an immutable thing. The beginning never changes. The end is always the end. The characters’ actions and their fates remain the same no matter how many times we may revisit their stories. But even after its publication, there’s also a way in which a novel is still very much alive. A novel is a collaboration between a reader and its writer, a conversation across time and space that takes place inside the reader’s mind. Each time that inert set of words finds another home in someone else’s consciousness, it is born again. Even for its author, each new reading will yield at least a slightly different story.
After the flurry of bookstore readings, book festival events, and conversations with readers when Windfalls appeared in 2004, I turned my attention to writing other novels, immersing myself in new fictional worlds. When I thought of Cerise and Anna, they seemed more like dear friends I’d somehow managed to lose touch with than living presences in my life. Revisiting their story now not only brings Anna and Cerise back to life for me, but offers me vivid glimpses of that younger version of myself who was driven to capture and explore the story of those women’s unlikely friendship.
It also invites me to compare their experiences with those of young mothers now. Although cell phones are much more ubiquitous than they were in the early 2000s when Windfalls is set, at least in America, disappointingly little else has changed. As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, the brunt of childcare still falls to women, daycare is still precarious, and most parents still face struggles and dilemmas very similar to those that Cerise and Anna had to confront. A woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices is still being challenged, untreated mental illness, chronic homelessness, and the terrible inequities of late-stage American capitalism persist. The temperature of the Earth continues to rise, and one sad but understandable byproduct of that existential threat is the growing reluctance on the part of many people to consider bringing children into this endangered world.
And yet the news isn’t all grim. Parents’ love, courage, and devotion to their children persists. Inspired by their concerns about the world their children will inherit, many parents are committing themselves to addressing global warming and promoting social justice. The increasing involvement of fathers in the duties and delights of baby-tending and child-rearing is another promising change, as is the growing visibility of stepparents, gay parents, adoptive parents, trans parents, non-binary parents, and other sorts of co-parents. Thanks to the Biden administration, the shocking rate of childhood poverty in the United States is finally being addressed, and all but the richest American families will soon begin receiving a monthly stipend for every child.
Windfalls recently gained a powerful new resonance for me, nearly two decades after I’d finished writing it. Last August, half a year into the COVID-19 lockdown, my family’s home of thirty years was destroyed in one of California’s apocalyptic wildfires. It was the house where my husband and I had raised our children, deep in the forest that had inspired the setting for Into the Forest as well as the novel I am currently completing. Now, suddenly, my vibrant forest was little more than grey ash and black charcoal, and the rooms that had housed our family’s life as well as our heirlooms, art, mementoes, and a library of over 7,000 books had been reduced to a painfully small pile of rubble.
In addition to our cat and a few portable treasures, I had managed to save the laptop which contained the most recent draft of my novel-in-progress. But all of my research materials and previous drafts, as well poems, essays, journals, letters, and drafts of my unpublished books were destroyed. Although we received an astonishing outpouring of “socially distanced” support from family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, especially when added to the grief, anxiety, and isolation caused by the pandemic, there were days I despaired of ever being able to move beyond those losses.
A few weeks after the fire, my husband, cat, and I were driving across California’s Central Valley to take up residence in the twelve square meter room my stepdaughter and her husband had heroically thrown up for us as—we hoped—a COVID-safe shelter in their backyard. Halfway through our trip, when we pulled off the freeway for gas, I noticed a well-kempt white-haired man standing at the edge of the truck stop parking lot holding a hand-lettered sign that read: Paradise Fire Survivor. Clean and sober. Please help.
Recalling that the Paradise Fire had destroyed over 620 square kilometers and two northern Californian towns less than twenty months earlier, we felt an immediate sense of connection with that lone stranger. My husband pulled our car up alongside him, and I rolled down the window to speak to him and offer him some cash. After he thanked us for that small kindness, I explained that we were especially sympathetic to his plight because we, too, had recently lost our home to a wildfire.
He instantly grew solicitous, and then asked the question that has haunted and helped to heal me ever since, “Did you lose anyone?”
When I replied that, thankfully, we hadn’t, he told us that he’d lost both his sister and his seventeen-year-old son in the fire that destroyed his home. He spoke matter-of-factly and without rancor or self-pity. Hearing that snippet of his story instantly put my losses in perspective in a way that other reminders of my good fortune had not. In retrospect, I consider it a near-angelic act of kindness for that stranger to have shared the bare facts of his appalling calamity with us so calmly in a truck stop parking lot.
Helpless in that moment to do anything more for him, my husband and I wished him luck and drove off. But as we merged back onto the freeway, I thought of Cerise and her journey along a similar Californian road. I recalled her endurance and her perseverance, and how, thanks to the kindness of strangers and her own fierce resolve, she somehow finds the courage to keep moving toward the things that matter most. I remembered Anna, who also loses a beloved home which had been source of inspiration for her, and how she, too, is still willing to take the risks that may help her and her family continue to grow. I was grateful for how those two women’s struggles and their triumphs continued to illuminate my own.
April 30, 2021
This essay first appeared as the Preface to Apaiser nos tempêtes, the French translation of Windfalls, translated by Nathalie Bru, and published by Éditions Phébus in 2021.