By Courtney Reed
Born in West Virginia in 1952, writer Jayne Anne Phillips published her first story collection in 1976. The publication of Black Tickets in 1979 prompted Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer to call Phillips “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty.” Phillips’s subsequent publications, which have been praised for their poetic prose and in-depth examinations of war and family dynamics, have continued to garner critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including her most recent novel, Lark and Termite, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009. Materials related to Phillips and Lark and Termite are highlighted in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.
Lark and Termite explores the effects of the Korean War on a soldier and his family back home in West Virginia. Termite, the disabled son of the soldier, and Lark, his half sister and caretaker, are the central characters of the novel. The novel shifts between narrators, settings, and time.
Inspired by a series of investigative news articles published in 1999 about the No Gun Ri Massacre during the Korean War, Phillips incorporates the incident into the plot of Lark and Termite. During the massacre, an unknown number of Korean refugees were strafed from the air by machine guns at close range by U.S. soldiers. The bridge where the massacre occurred is the setting of critical scenes in the novel, and bridges and trains bear strong symbolism throughout the story. Phillips kept news clippings about the incident in her files related to the novel, and one clipping that includes an image of the bridge is displayed in the exhibition.
Further significance of trains and tunnels are found throughout the novel. Displayed in the exhibition is a typescript page from a section of the book narrated by Termite, which demonstrates the boy’s attraction to trains and bridges. Termite spends much of his time in a rail yard tunnel listening to the roar of the trains overhead.
Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read two selections from Lark and Termite.