I’m glad to say the English teacher is starting this thing off. Takes the pressure off me a bit, which is lovely. Both of us are through “Part 1: The Last To See Them Alive”, and Steve’s comments below are just covering the first 60 pages or so. There aren’t any spoilers, so even if you haven’t finished Part 1, feel free to read on! (Plus, I have a feeling spoilers would be difficult, considering the back cover blurb tells you up front who died and who killed ’em).
But let me delay this no further. Take it away Steve!
This is maybe the fourth different version of my first writing on In Cold Blood. I’ve been trying really hard to sound smart and professional but that wasn’t working out for me. First of all, I’m not professional, as any former student can tell you. And second, I can’t jump straight into being smart. I have to work my way there. So I’m just going to start my writing in a similar fashion to how I kick off new books in class: my opinion of the characters.
This is something I like to talk about on the first or second day of a new novel in class. The class obviously can’t get into a real deep discussion of the book since we’ve only read a small chunk of it. So often I’ll just ask the students, or have them write about, which characters they like and which they don’t like (and, of course, why). It’s a fun exercise that allows a larger percentage of the class to participate because it’s just stating your opinion. You don’t have to worry about making some intelligent insight or thought-out theory.
Nancy Clutter is up first. The sixteen year old daughter. Capote shows us Nancy teaching a younger girl how to make cherry pies, giving trumpet lessons, staring in the school’s play, stitching pillows, organizing her sister’s bridal shower, and watching television with her basketball star of a boyfriend. The perfect Midwest farmer’s daughter. It’s hard to explain but there is something about Nancy that I don’t like. Maybe it’s the way she intentionally schedules her activities from the moment she wakes up (the first of which is brushing her hair 100 times) till the moment she goes to bed (which is always preceded by a quick diary entry and another 100 brushes). I get the feeling that Nancy knows people think she is the perfect young lady, that everyone loves her, that people want their children to learn from her. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I think the attention has gone to her head and now she feels the need to uphold that reputation.
The character that interests me the most in Bonnie Clutter, the mom of the family. Capote spends a lot of time telling us how Herb Clutter, the patriarch, is one of the most well-known and respected men in the region. So I was caught a little off guard by the fact that Bonnie and Herb sleep in separate bedrooms and Bonnie spends most of her time in bed, windows and doors shut tight. Capote quotes someone as saying Bonnie went through “little spells”. Her encounter is with Nancy’s cherry pie protégé is remarkably awkward. The reader’s first reaction is, “oh, Bonnie is depressed.” Capote seems to back this up later by informing us she suffered from postpartum depression after the births of both Nancy and her youngest, Kenyon. So know that we know this, most people are just prone to attribute all of Bonnie’s actions and words to her depression. This happens a lot. In The Glass Castle, people brush off Rosemary Walls as bipolar. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and her husband are just “crazy” so that’s that. When people learn something about a person’s mental state, they use that to rationalize almost everything the character does. But that’s not really fair. Bonnie Clutter has had a whole lifetime of experiences that lead up her present condition. She didn’t always live in the Middle Of Nowhere, Kansas. Was she planning on becoming a mom of four? Should she have married Herb in the first place? How does she see herself, locked up in her room while her teenage children are going about their lives without her present? There’s a lot to think about concerning Bonnie. More than just “she’s depressed.”
I don’t have as much to say about Herb and Kenyon Clutter. Herb may be one of the most respected guys in Holcomb but that’s doesn’t mean he’s perfect by any stretch. I like Kenyon. He just strikes me as a very honest, straightforward kid who seems to be a bit of a loner, but okay with that fact. Perry and Dick are a different story.
Things I Want To Think About: How Bonnie’s attitude has influenced her children (really just Kenyon and Nancy), the best way to describe Perry and Dick’s relationship, early perceptions of Herb and the community of Holcomb, the little reminders Capote drops at the end of paragraphs regarding what is in the near future for the Clutter family.