Faith in a Tree by Grace Paley, 1974

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by Grace Paley, 1974

Grace Paley has not received much scholarly attention, even though a book-length study by Jacqueline Taylor was published in 1990. Nonetheless, her short stories have been widely anthologized and admired by writers and critics as well as by the general reading public. "Faith in a Tree," which appeared in the second of three story collections, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, illustrates many features that have led critics to regard her as a writer's writer, with a careful craft, an inventive narrative technique, an original voice, and a language that is freshly unique.

While Paley's stories deal with nonheroic characters engaged in everyday life, usually in Greenwich Village, her fiction is colored by a penetrating vision of contemporary social and political reality. As in most of her work, Paley articulates a female-centered consciousness in "Faith in a Tree" that cuts deeper than the usual surface problems facing women in a male-dominated society. At the end of the story Faith, the narrator, acts with initiative and quietly bold resistance to the dominant tradition, a form common among Paley's protagonists. Instead of ending in resignation or despair, the story resolves with a hope that celebrates a strength in doing and a faith in change that, as one critic points out, circumvents the standard "resolutions for a female protagonist: marriage or death."

In similar fashion, when Alexandra, the protagonist in the story "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," becomes pregnant, she does not ask the child's father to live with her but instead invites three pregnant teenage girls to share her house so that she can "make good use of the events of her life." It is this spirited theme of action that blossoms at the end of "Faith in a Tree."

The story opens with Faith literally sitting in the arm of a sycamore tree and watching her women friends and their children—including her own, Richard and Tonto—interact with the world below. From this suspended perspective Faith reports on a world that seems odd and quirky in its logic or, rather, "logics," which represent the multiplicity of principles that govern human action.

In the third paragraph Faith describes the park in language that exposes three of the logics frequently used to explain and justify the ways of the world: " democratic time," "God," and "springtime luck." This juxtaposition in one sentence establishes a universe of logically incompatible congruence that subtly fuses reason, faith, and chance. When we read of "the deer-eyed eland and kudu … grazing the open pits of the Bronx Zoo," we hardly notice the logical contradictions: can a "pit" really be "open"? Can a "zoo" really be a place for "grazing"? In a state of numbed familiarity, who ever bothers to ask?

Paley defamiliarizes scene after scene by revealing the simultaneity of contradictory logics. She does this so frequently that illogic itself becomes the subject of the story. Faith is in a tree, animals graze in a zoo, and park policemen refuse to allow kids to strum their guitars in the grass because the sound "could be the decibel to break a citizen's eardrum," a form of "civic" logic here defamiliarized to absurdity.

Male characters enter the story bearing the "male" logic of transience and detachment. Ignorant of the children he has fathered ("I think I have a boy who's nine"), Philip is nevertheless ready to adopt Tonto, Faith's youngest, on the basis of mere acquaintance after hearing the boy expose the logic of fatherhood. "Mostly nobody has fathers," Tonto says, substantiating his claim by reporting that Kitty's daughters have none, he himself has one who disappeared in an equatorial jungle, and his friend Judy has two, one being Dr. Kraat, who will, quite appropriately, "take care of you if you're crazy." Philip responds by saying, "Maybe I'll be your father," and with this ironic sword he draws figurative blood from his own foot.

Much of the illogic Faith reports is humorous—the PTA president who is fired when authorities discover that he has no children, or Philip deciding to become a comedian even though he is not funny—but it is also ironic, especially in its implicit revelation of male attitudes. As in much of Paley's fiction, there are moments when the world's illogic and contradiction seem of no more consequence than Philip's turning out to be a bad comedian who cannot make people laugh. Sometimes, however, illogical logic is revealed as anything but inconsequential. This is the case, for example, when Faith describes Vietnam War protesters who enter the park while pushing their children in strollers and carrying placards that depict napalmed babies. The placards ask Would You Burn A Child? The response is Only When Necessary.

The story gains force through the use of collaborative narration, in which characters are allowed to correct the narrator's version of events, a technique that appropriately undermines the dominant logic of traditional narrative in a story whose subject is the challenge of dominant logic. The narrator herself comes to realize that, from another point of view, her own logic is equally imperfect. When her son Richard says, "We're really a problem to you, Faith, we keep you not free," she can only find an exasperated response: "How can you answer that boy?"

It is Richard's action that reveals to Faith the "suppressed woman" logic that has kept her powerless. When a policeman asserts the principle of civic dominance to expel the protesters from the park, Richard reacts with livid anger and berates the adults who sit passively in the face of dangerously flawed logic. In responding, Faith discovers inside herself the most valid logic of all—protest. Richard mocks adults, and Faith changes enormously at this last minute. No longer suspended indecisively in the arm of a sycamore tree, she is committed to changing, she says, "my hairdo, my job uptown, my style of living and telling." When the protesters move outside the park beyond the policeman's jurisdiction, they reveal an effective logic for functioning in an illogical world. When Faith descends from the tree and follows her inner sense, she discovers a related logic that indeed makes good use of the events of her life.

—Paul Sladky