Born 24 September 1932, Brooklyn, New York
Wrote under: Hannah Green
Daughter of Julius and Rosalie Bernstein Goldenberg; married Albert Greenberg, 1955; children: David, Alan
Formerly an elementary school teacher, Joanne Greenberg is a successful novelist and short story writer who also happens to be a professor of anthropology and creative writing at the Colorado School of Mines. Born in Brooklyn, Greenberg graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., where she had majored in anthropology and literature. She continued her studies at the University of London and the University of Colorado. Yet the most pivotal years of her life may be from 1948 through 1951, when she was treated for schizophrenia by the famous psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Greenberg had planned to write a book with her before the analyst's sudden death in 1957. Five years later, Greenberg began writing (alone) I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), publishing it under the pseudonym Hannah Green. Only when she realized, four years later, there was another Hannah Green, also a writer, did Greenberg acknowledge authorship of the book.
Greenberg's first book, The King's Persons (1963), is a historical novel exploring the causes of the conflict resulting in the 1190 massacre of the Jews of York. The book's theme is the danger of creeds as a source of misunderstanding. Her second novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, is Greenberg's most successful. A sensitive study, not overly sentimental or melodramatic, of a psychotic teenage girl, the book appealed to a wide range of readers and became something of a cult classic. Both the girl, with her strange, troubled fantasy world, and her doctor, a woman with great patience and understanding, are carefully drawn. Greenberg avoids easy answers, carefully depicting the world of the mentally ill, but her final prognosis is optimistic.
In The Monday Voices (1965), Greenberg uses a case-history format to follow the day-to-day professional life of Ralph Oakland, a caseworker at a state department of rehabilitation (Greenberg's husband was a vocational rehab counselor, often working with hearing-impaired clients). Oakland's cases represent a cross-section of society's ills. Following his failures and successes, the reader can empathize with the pressures that drive the best people from such work, as Oakland struggles against despair, guilt, and an ulcer.
Alienation and lack of communication arise from a physical disability in Greenberg's novel, In This Sign (1970), an insightful depiction of the world of the deaf. This carefully researched, painfully accurate narrative follows a deaf couple, the Ryders, from the early stages of their marriage through their roles as grandparents facing retirement. Exploited by the hearing world, shut out by themselves as much as by others, they nevertheless persist and survive.
In Summering: A Book of Short Stories (1966), Greenberg's favorite themes of isolation and imperfect communication are especially apparent. In "You Can Still Grow Flowers," a woman is recording a dying dialect she herself cannot speak. Similarly isolated is the mild, white librarian of "Gloss on a Decision of the Council of Vicea," jailed with a group of militant blacks, with whom she sympathizes but cannot reach. In Greenberg's second collection of short stories, Rites of Passage (1971), the reader is introduced to an extraordinarily varied assortment of characters. Only the element of change—sometimes painful, sometimes welcome, always inevitable—links these narratives, whose subjects range widely within the scope of the 12 stories.
Greenberg's novel Founder's Praise (1976) is a return to her original subject, for it, like her first novel, recognizes the dangers of creeds. The religious phenomenon she explores here is the birth and growth of a sect based on the unique vision of a farmer, Edgar Bisset. He does not live to see the religion, founded on his personal experience, institutionalize his vision and turn it into something he would not have recognized. Like The King's Persons, Founder's Praise underscores the irony inherent in allowing love of God to create hatred and conflict among people.
Greenberg chooses themes of isolation and loneliness, of the difficulties in overcoming countless obstacles—physical, spatial, temporal, emotional, psychological—in order to realize one's best self and to know and communicate with others. The problem of understanding is central to Greenberg's books, and she is especially adept in her ability to show that much of our failure is due to our own preconceptions and the barriers we construct out of our fears. Greenberg does not opt for simple answers, but she raises questions which must be faced if society is to survive.
Greenberg is also a master of making the extraordinary accessible. Although she has been criticized on occasion for lacking in art, or seen as merely a special-interest author (like in her most famous novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), Greenberg's consistently understated style lends a matter-of-fact quality to characters and experiences far from the ordinary reader's experience. However odd her characters, they exist within complex networks of interpersonal relationships; families, especially, are never far from the center of her stories. Her books are as much about connections as about isolation, as much about rich identities as about fractured selves.
While her prose hesitates to announce itself, Greenberg's plotting and narrative devices are prominent. In Simple Gifts (1986), Greenberg's use of multiple points of view is appropriate for a novel that explores the endless emotional and moral valences of a family who find themselves transformed when a government program turns their dilapidated farm into a vacation spot for jaded yuppies. A Season of Delight (1981) also examines the dynamics of competing family values.
Vivian Sanborn in Age of Consent (1987) embarks on a pilgrimage to find out about the life of her adopted, recently assassinated brother, Daniel, healer, saint, and a man incapable of ordinary human interaction. Attempts at fixing one meaning to an event or person prove as fruitless as finding the incinerated pictorial documentation of Sanborn's work. Yet the plotting of this intricate novel is so tidy as to conflict with the complexity of the characters and events. Another perhaps overly plotted but richly textured novel is The Far Side of Victory (1983), which constructs itself around two focal points—the car accidents that mold Eric Gordon's life.
Of Such Small Differences (1988) departs from Greenberg's other works in its creation of a different language, appropriate for the reality experienced by the deaf-blind. Greenberg returns here to an old concern—how "unfamiliar" worlds intersect with, conflict with, and question other realities. The poet John, deaf-blind and independent, falls into a relationship with the hearing and sighted Leda.
Isolation, disability, and even "the self" as static, limpid categories have no place in Greenberg's fiction, which always finds people striving among others, choosing among conflicting ideas of duty and fulfillment. The extraordinary inheres in both everything and nothing in works that treat the "oddest" and most "normal" of characters and events not from a stance of wonder or condescension but from the perspective of familiarity.
Greenberg uses a series of letters written between family members to construct her novel Where the Road Goes (1998). Tig Warriner is a sixty-two-year-old grandmother and environmental activist who is on a year-long, cross-country walk to evaluate the nation's feelings on environmental issues. While she is gone, she corresponds with her husband, Marz, her daughters, Justice and Solidarity, and her granddaughter, Hope, Justice's daughter. The distance and resultant correspondence brings the family closer than they had been when living together in Colorado and provides the foundation and format for the book.
In her letters, Tig describes the walk across the U.S. in detail. The letters she receives provide not only the issues and relationships on which the stories are based, but the different perspectives found when more than one person tells the same tale. Hope becomes pregnant and marries Larry, who is of Native American heritage and has a drinking problem. Marz writes of challenges, new beginnings, and introspection brought about by his relationship with his grandson, Ben. The theme of the tribe weaves throughout Where the Road Goes as it relates to communities in general—families, gays, activists, idealists. As always, Greenberg presents a good story through complex characters and simple, elegant prose for a truly memorable offering.
Greenberg is the recipient of a myriad of awards, including the Community Grange Award for Citizenship, the H & E Daroff Memorial Award for fiction (1963), William and Janice Eppstein Fiction Award (1964), Fromm Reichmann Award (1967), Kenner Award (1971), Rocky Mountain Women's Institute Award (1983), and the Denver Public Library Bookplate Award (1990). Greenberg has also been awarded several honorary degrees, from Gallaudet College, Western Maryland College, and the University of Colorado.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors (1979). Leah (with Seymour Epstein, 1987). With the Snow Queen (1991). No Reck'ning Made (1993).
CA (1969). CANR (1985, 1991). CLC (1977,1984). SATA (1981).
Booklist (1 Jan. 1998). LJ (Jan. 1998). Psychology Review (1972). PW (23 Sept. 1988, 8 Dec. 1997). NYTBR (27 Dec. 1987, 30 Oct. 1988).
—JANETTE S. LEWIS,
UPDATED BY FAYE HALPERN
AND REBECCA C. CONDIT