Book Review: The Blue Box by Sallie Bingham
Sallie Bingham was given a blue box, filled with artifacts and writings from her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and turned its contents into The Blue Box. The book adds a great deal of factual information to what is already known and written about the Bingham family, but little is done by Bingham to connect the text to larger, external themes. However, she does make intra-text connections a handful of times—such as when she connects the women to each other through their writing. For example, Bingham discusses her great-grandmother’s memoir, written for her granddaughters. “And yet there is a link: dark enchantment, punishment, pain, and suffering—all of which Sallie carefully avoids—will become the stuff of her daughter Helena’s fiction.” Moments like this are the closest The Blue Box gets to any sort of referent, outside or otherwise. And Bingham seems to have inherited this self-selectivity in writing from her great-grandmother and grandmother, because there are several seemingly ripe contextual scenarios available to her that she passes up time and again.
The Blue Box is separated simply into three main sections, plus an introduction and afterword. These three sections are divided strictly by the life of each of the three women, with smaller divisions made wordlessly by a dot between paragraphs. Unframed as the smaller divisions are, each life is an expanse of girlhood and courting, marriage and childbearing. Each section unfolds the way life happens—the melt of time passing, the enfolding of who came before into the life of who lives now. Although this book is written about Bingham’s own ancestors, she mostly keeps herself and her now out of the book. The author’s hand only appears in a very restrained way, and the readers are almost never directly addressed, save for a few generalized ‘we’ statements and philosophical questions in the introduction and afterword. The reader is left to make their own larger-context connections, beyond the linear narratives of the three women.
In Bingham’s biography, photographs are illustrative supplementals. Part one, which is about Bingham’s great-grandmother Sallie, provides several photographs, among them one of her in a photo of the 1907 Richmond Women’s Club. A paragraph on the same page as the photograph describes the image:
In an official club portrait taken in 1907, halfway through her term as an active member, Sallie looks extraordinarily assured, her sculpted lips set. At fifty-seven, her creamy skin is shown to advantage in the scoop neck of her black silk gown. Her dark blond hair is arranged becomingly in a chignon, with curls tendriling across her forehead; her beautifully set eyes express calm confidence.
Little is added to the audience’s understanding by this description. It, although eloquent, is an echo exact of the picture. The contents of the blue box of the title are brought into the text, but not in a way that lets them stand on their own, or leads the readers to a greater understanding of an overarching theme. There is no animation, as Barthes would say. The question then is whether this quickening is absolutely needed to justify the addition of the photograph to the text. What would be lost if Sallie’s “beautifully set eyes” were available to the reader only through text and the photo omitted? As an audience we are not called on by Bingham to find anything that cannot be articulated by words in the photograph. The photo does not stand on its own with the other included photographs to create their own narrative beyond simply they were.
What readers, without complicating the context, or troubling the histories—instead merely presenting it—does Bingham’s biographical accounts benefit? In one particularly frustrating example, Bingham brings the readers so close to an insight, but backs down at the last moment. This lost opportunity for connection is present in the third section, her mother’s narrative, where Bingham describes how her mother had to choose which of her husband’s letters to donate to a library for an archive, and which to keep at home—“Her reasoning for either choice is open to interpretation, as it was not recorded in either place.” A little dot demarking a shift in time follows this quotation directly, closing that line of thought, leaving the interpretation only supposed, but never acted upon.
Most prominent throughout is the way the contents of the blue box show how generations of women in her family have been blind to matters of race. This issue comes up on the very first page of the book. “All three women were tiny, but they held their heads high,” Bingham states as a matter of group introduction. She continues, “though their pride was based in part on an unexamined faith, never directly spoken, in their racial superiority.” Though Bingham acknowledges her maternal ancestors recorded their lives as they wanted them to appear and not in a strictly factual way (as humans tend to do), there is no line of questioning or reflection on this issue beyond the cursory mentioning and pointing out when it happens. Bingham’s The Blue Box is not bold in its supposing. Instead historical missteps float on by, unexamined. One gets the sense that this topic is uncomfortable for Bingham to speak about, instead of seeing this unknown as fruitful territory for dialogue with the audience. It is a complication of the past in light of the present that is so very missing. Does this omission make it less of a biography? No. But, because Bingham actively turns away from engagement with the big topics the lives she re-creates bring up, it means she also turns away from a connection with her audience.
Lesley Ann Wheeler is a writer and teacher in Kansas City. Her hybrid essays have appeared in Omniverse and Bone Bouquet (as the 2013 Bone Bouquet Experimental Prose Contest winner). She holds a BFA from the Pratt Institute, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.