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Northeast Kingdom Novelist Strives To Understand Identity, Disempowerment & Femininity In 'The Hare'

An image of the novel The Hare next to a photograph of author Melanie Finn.
Image: Two Dollar Radio / Author photo: Libby March
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Northeast Kingdom author Melanie Finn's latest novel "The Hare" follows Rosie Monroe and her experiences with men that, through sorrow and experience, shape her throughout her life.

Rose Monroe falls in love with a cosmopolitan con man who uproots her and her infant daughter to an isolated cabin in northern Vermont. In her new novel, The Hare, Northeast Kingdom author Melanie Finn chronicles Rose's survival in a society defined by inequalities of gender, wealth and privilege.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with author Melanie Finn about her new novel The Hare. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Rose Monroe is a character who's had a ton of sorrow touch her life. It starts with her own childhood. She suffers abuse that her grandmother (who raised her) turns a blind eye to. And her marriage to Bennett follows that pattern. He manipulates her affection for him in terrible ways, abusing her in a manner that's chiefly psychological and emotional. One common thread in the book is that most of the obstacles Rose has to overcome are put in her way by men.

Even though this is very much a story about Rose, the individual, and what she's able to overcome in her hard-scrabble life, did events in American life, when you started writing this book, inform the novel and Rose's story as it progressed?

Melanie Finn: I started writing this in about 2016, so right at the ascendancy of the Trump administration. And I felt this this overwhelming, I guess, confusion and sorrow that this man who had been so outspoken in his opinions of women, and his abuse of women, should seem to be rewarded for this behavior by being voted to the most powerful position in our country.

I was trying to understand what that meant to me. And I was also trying to understand what it meant to women like me who had been survivors of abuse, as to how we should negotiate this landscape.

There's this idea we have of America and then there's this reality of it which can be very, very different for women, and it can be extremely different for women who are recovering from abuse.

<strong>"It was trying to understand my own sense of disempowerment, and the times in my life that I've been really struggling with money. And then, to look outward in the community that I live in, where there's obviously many people in the same position, and trying to understand what disempowerment does to you." - author Melanie Finn </strong>

There's also a theme of economic disparity that runs through the book. Rose's husband abandons her and their child in the worst of circumstances. How did the daily struggles of working-class Vermonters in the Northeast Kingdom, where you live, inform the challenges of Rose's daily life?

It was trying to understand my own sense of disempowerment, and the times in my life that I've been really struggling with money. And then, to kind of look outward in the community that I live in, where there's obviously many people in the same position, and trying to understand what disempowerment does to you. The shame that you feel, because there's this ideal that you're supposed to be so self-reliant, you know, rugged individualism! And to take anything from the government, or from anyone, can feel like a shameful failure.

So for Rose, to explore how she finds power within that financial disenfranchisement, she does that by becoming reliant, by hunting and foraging and by figuring out where she can get free winter boots. And the final act is this moment of both liberation and defiance. But, you know, other people can see it as kind of like socialist vandalism. You know: how dare she do that?

And without giving away what you're talking about, because it is sort of the final scene of the book, which really moved me, we will say only that Rose is an artist, and she has wonderful talent, and she reclaims her talent at the end of the book in an extraordinary scene.

How important is it, too, that Rose's neighbor, Billy, or Wilhelmina, as we come to find out her real name is, is a woman? And that their friendship is fostered between them, with an understanding of the struggles that they both face as women? Very different women, by the way, but women, nevertheless?

Coming to the book from this personal perspective, which was entering menopause, which is this sort of conflagration — you kind of take everything that you thought identified you as a woman and you just have this heat burning in your body the whole time. It's like you literally just create a pyre of this femininity, and then you come out the other side — I wanted to look at the different ways that women “wear” womanhood.

So you have Billy, who has chosen to discard femininity, sort of put it aside, as something that has no meaning to her. It has no purpose. In fact, it might even be an impediment. Whereas Rose has kind of been cultivated, by Bennet, to be feminine, and to wear nice dresses.

In Billy, she's able to begin to see these other ways of being a woman. You don't have to just go through this one channel. You could be tough, you could be independent, you can hunt a deer, and yet still be a woman within that. It's another way of exploring her own womanhood.

The theme of economic privilege mixes with gender identity in a really surprising way near the end of this book. Rose travels to Boston to meet a man that she used to know in high school, and she kind of explodes in anger. It's a really tense scene in a restaurant.

I hope I'm not giving away too much by revealing that Rose's old friend, that she goes to meet, has undergone gender affirming surgery. Why does Rose get so upset with her friend talking about transition?

"People are seeking relief. And this isn't something that people jump into. It's not like one day you suddenly wake up and decide you want to have this surgery and become a different gender. If it's something that offers someone relief in life, then they should be able to do that." - author Melanie Finn

This is a real hot-button issue, and anybody speaking about it needs to be very careful. I had the experience of somebody who I had worked with transitioning to become a woman. And my initial reaction was: Why would you do this? You have all the money in the world, and you choose to become a woman? I couldn't quite understand it.

But I have a neighbor, who is very wise, [and] I often turn to her for advice. And she just said, "Look, you know, people are seeking relief. And this isn't something that people jump into. It's not like one day you suddenly wake up and decide you want to have this surgery and become a different gender. If it's something that offers someone relief in life, then they should be able to do that."

I think the problem for Rose is, again, it comes back to her own financial disempowerment. How can she become who she wants to be, when she doesn't have the kind of money to reinvent herself, that she sees her old high school friend having? And again, coming back to that idea, how do we find empowerment within our disempowerment?

Ultimately, Melanie, I feel like Rose is a kind of superhero. You know, life is hard enough, whether you're a man or a woman, but especially if you're a woman. And Rose overcomes, not larger-than-life obstacles, but obstacles thrown at her by regular, daily life. Do you think we need to see more stories like Rose's told in books and movies and popular culture?

One of the criticisms that a friend had in the book — and I love criticism, I think it's really healthy, it’s great to hear — was that too much happens to Rose. I almost brutalize my character. But the challenge that I would throw back to that is if you asked any woman on the street to write down the number of incidents in her life — over abuse as a child, or the more insidious drip, drip, drip of sexual harassment and sexual innuendo — you would find that you could very easily fill up a book.

At its heart, this is a book about a woman who's just trying to get by. And a lot of what's happened to Rose has happened to me in some form or another, has happened to women I know in some form or another, so while she is this super hero, she is also just this quiet person trying to get food for her kid, trying to figure out how she can be the best person, and have meaning in her life.

Editor's note: the original interview with the author has been edited to use the more inclusive term of gender-affirming surgery, with guidance from The Trans Journalists Association.

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