Eavesdropping

Dawn Tripp Has Georgia O’Keeffe on Her Mind

The critically acclaimed novelist shares an excerpt from her best-selling novel, "Georgia."

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(Photo Credit: Jack Tripp)

Writer Dawn Tripp — whose essays have appeared in The Believer, The Rumpus, and elsewhere — took six years to write her fourth novel, “Georgia.” In it, she delves deeply into the psyche and the life story of artist Georgia O’Keeffe; in fact, she relates the novel through Georgia’s imagined voice. 

Above, you’ll hear Dawn share an early moment from the novel, in which young Georgia’s family splinters, and her art takes on meaning it hadn’t before. (The audio has been edited for broadcast time.)  Below you’ll find the full excerpt.

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Before

They fell like trees, the males of my father’s family. First the gritty flush, then the telltale, hectic cough. Consumption. It got into their lungs and shredded them.

My father had left school to pour himself into the fields when his own father died of it. Then it took his two older brothers. His last brother, the youngest, Bernard, died in my mother’s arms. She had brought him into our farmhouse to nurse him because there was no one else. I remember her stern and regal face bent over him–her lovely aquiline features, residual traces of the royal lineage she had descended from to this. She would place her hand under his neck to lift his head, a glass of water to his lips, blood in their cracked seams. The light did not quite reach him, but fell just to the side–as if it had made its choice–and when he passed, he left the last share of land to my father “for one dollar with love and affection bestowed.”

We had two dresses each. One to wear while the other was washed. My sisters wore bright-colored sashes to cinch their waists with a lean splash of color, but I preferred mine loose and straight and plain. Our mother was cool but not unkind. Her eyes luminous, austere, held a sort of distance we did not belong to, like the line at the end of the sky–that silent point of reference that held everything tethered, the line that seemed to meet the land but never did. She was educated, mannered, intelligent, she ‘d wanted to be a doctor once but was married off to my father to merge the farms of their two families. She read to us in the evenings and on rainy days, and my brothers and sisters and I would listen, rapt and silent always, sitting on the great skin of the buffalo our father had shot once in the Dakotas.

GEORGIA -- cover

After Bernard was gone, and the room where his red-flecked sputum stained the floor had been scrubbed and tidied, linens burned–we never spoke of him by name. There was a day, though, I remember, not long after. Late summer, the warm breeze pressed through the open window, I came upon my mother sitting in her bedroom. On the table beside her were a pair of gold-and-emerald earrings, an exquisite gift her father, George Totto, had made to his wife, Isabelle, before he sailed home to Hungary to claim a lost inheritance and never returned. Those earrings were my mother’s most prized possession. She pinned them to her ears when she entertained ladies from town for tea–a token of wealth and exile, of exotic splendor and the quiet stain of betrayal. The day I found her in her bedroom, the earrings laid out on the table near her, she was sitting very still, and I stayed more still in the doorway so she wouldn’t know I was there. It frightened me, her broken face, grief pouring through it. It was not Bernard she was mourning–I was eleven and old enough to understand–but her own relinquished life.

Everything changed. Our father grew solemn, skittish. No longer the fiddle-playing, laughing, lighthearted man that I adored. Fear of the white plague dogged him. Every cough or fever made him jump. He drank heavily. There were rumors of horse theft, gambling, fights, a woman he kept in town. Our pact was a common silence. That was understood. We never spoke of any of it.

The following winter, the mercury dropped to thirty below. Snow piled up ten feet.

Drawing classes began for us that winter. I did not have the talent my younger sisters had. We were taught to copy shaded cubes and chromos from the Prang drawing book. We drew sprays of oats and twigs, painful imitations of still lifes, inflated red roses, a pharaoh’s horse–failed paintings that my mother framed and hung.

One night on my way upstairs, passing by the window on the landing, I caught a glimpse of something fleeting on the snow. I took a step closer. Just moonlight on the field. That’s all it was. Trees bare and dark against the snow. Across the field, a pale lean strip of sky lay like a long thin door.

I made a picture of it–the first picture I made that said something to me–trees, shadows, moonlight–and not moonlight as I saw it but the feeling I had looking out at that field–the soft work of night, how it skinned the world open.

For the snow, I left the paper bare, but it looked too honest, too desolate and familiar, and I scratched thin gray marks to cover it with the impression of a road.

I destroyed that picture soon after, but from that moment on art would become this for me–singular, indissoluble–the one thing that could rein in the chaos and fear to transmute an untenable world to some form of beauty even as that world fell away.

My parents sold the farm and left. My mother was just beginning to show the early signs of illness, but still we knew. We headed east. My parents had sold most of what we owned, like they could rinse themselves of the soiled fate the farm had come to stand for. They took the money, the Irish silver, a favorite carriage horse. My mother packed the gold-and-emerald earrings and the framed copies of paintings that I hated. I packed the moonlight on the field.

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