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Mildred Pierce: A Thanksgiving Thought



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On my mind today is Mildred Pierce, a 1941 novel by James Cain, set in the ten years leading up to the date of publication.

No, I didn't just refer to the movie star best known for playing Sonny Corleone. That's James Caan. I'm thinking now of the   novelist James Cain, born in 1892. Although his reputation is in eclipse now, he was quite well known for a time as a writer of "hardboiiled" crime fiction, a peer of Chandler or Hammett. Cain wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice., both memorably adapted into classic Hollywood films. Mildred Pierce was somewhat different, an effort at offering a naturalistic portrait of southern California suburbia.

Anyway, Mildred Pierce was also made into a movie in 1945, and became a television miniseries in 2011.

The title character has two daughters: Veda (11 years old when the story begins in 1931) and her little sister Ray (7 years). The photo above is of Veda, as portrayed by actress Morgan Turner in an HBO miniseries.

The following two-word sentence is not much of a spoiler, by the way, because it happens quite early in the plot, and sets up the rest: Ray dies.

Indeed, that's why I'm thinking of the book right now. Thanksgiving as currently practiced in the US has a lot to do with the sentimentalization of the nuclear family, and Mildred Pierce has a lot, in turn, to do with that.

Pierce kills off Ray because she is the kind of beloved-and-vulnerable little girl who is brought into literary existence precisely in order to be bumped off. She is Beth from Little Women, or Dickens' Little Nell, or so many others.

And the scene reminds me also of something Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

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