I was initially drawn to previews for the film Labor Day because of the story alone: a single mother living takes in an escaped convict and the two fall in love. The tragedy of the conflict and the romance that must exist for a woman to so blindly endanger herself and her son sound like the stuff of a great story. When I realized it was all based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, I did what I usually do in such situations: requested the book from the library as soon as possible and avoided clips, trailers, and reviews of the film as much as possible in an effort to preserve the wonder of reading a story with no preconceptions or spoilers.
Maynard crafts a compelling plot in Labor Day, a narrative that is uniquely told from the perspective of Henry, the thirteen year old son of Adele. A recluse after a series of harrowing miscarriages and a divorce from Henry’s father, Adele interacts with few people other than her son. Her efforts to avoid the outside world go so far that Adele and Henry only make trips to the grocery store once every two month, subsisting upon frozen dinners and canned soup between each stop in town. But over the Labor Day weekend before Henry is to enter the seventh-grade, he convinces his mother to make a trip to the local Pricemart for additional provisions. With a kind face, a gentle demeanor, and clothing that makes it appear he is an employee of the store, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a ride. Already having identified Adele as Henry’s mother from across the store, he pleads with the boy to convince his mom to exercise some kindness towards this man. While readers may never fully understand what it is that causes Adele to so uncharacteristically agree, especially in light of the fact that minor but noticeable traces of blood pour onto Frank’s shoe and below the brim of his hat, she does and Frank makes his way home with mother and son.
The escaped convict is quite open with Adele and Henry about his situation. In need of an appendectomy, Frank was transferred to a hospital from the state penitentiary and following his surgery, jumped from the hospital’s second floor window. Maynard’s characterization of Frank is so endearing, engaging and kind-hearted that you know his crime, the nature of which the author withholds for some time, is most likely fraught with misunderstanding, maybe an accident for which this otherwise decent man has taken the blame. And so it isn’t at all hard to believe that Adele and Frank could fall as deeply in love as they do over the long weekend.
Initially enamored with Frank himself, Henry learns many things from the man that is more of a father figure to the young boy that his own dad Richard. They play baseball, make a perfect pie crust in stifling near-100 degree heat, dream of escaping to northern Canada, and have conversations with Henry that make him feel a part of the relationship developing between his mother and this man. But readers cannot forget that Henry is also at a tender age in the throes of a tough adolescence, a young boy as lonely as his mother, partially on account of her strange behavior.
During a trip to the library, Henry meets Eleanor, a tortured girl one year his senior who has a history of divorced parents and an eating disorder. Desperate to be liked by someone his own age and to explore his burgeoning sexual feelings with someone of the opposite sex, Henry soaks in Eleanor’s knack for victimization. He shares with his new love interest the fact that his single parent mother recently started dating a new man. The young girl quickly twists the situation in such a way as to make Henry feel the outsider, as though his mother would abandon her only son to be with Frank. Once this cruelly misguided idea is planted in his mind, Henry begins to question Frank’s motives, as well as his mother’s, and resent their lovemaking each night, their shared looks and plans of escaping to start a new life where the authorities are not on Frank’s path. Eleanor’s suggestions also make clear to Henry just how much power he holds over the new couple. With a simple call to the police, Henry could not only claim a $10,000 reward, he could send Frank back to the penitentiary and prevent the loss of his mother’s love and attention, things he has never had to share before.
Henry’s moral dilemma and the resultant string of events following his meeting with Eleanor are not as well executed as the earlier portions of the novel, but things occur in such a way as readers expect that they must. I was completely engrossed by the beginnings of the novel, largely until Eleanor enters the picture. By that point, I was so enamored with the pseudo-family forged between Henry, Adele, and Frank, that I was rooting against the odds for nothing to interfere with the life they erected over this Labor Day weekend. The way things unfurl in Maynard’s version is just one of a few predictable and realistic potential outcomes, but the execution proves a bit rocky in action. The conclusion felt rushed in comparison to the slow pace at which Maynard allowed the weekend to so pleasantly unfold elsewhere in the novel. But maybe this is just my aversion to Eleanor speaking or my dissatisfaction with the fact that everyone didn’t ride off happily into the Canadian sunset as neatly as readers hope they will.
The world of Adele and Frank is completely developed through Henry’s eyes, a narrative choice that I initially thought was pretty bold but, in time, proved wise and effortlessly smooth. Because Henry is not party to the throes of affection, readers can better retain a more realistic perspective on the Adele-Frank relationship. Our narrator’s naivete allows us to hold out hope that love and familial happiness will prove triumphant, while his jealousy tempers this nearly impossible wish and evokes a very visceral conflict in the character and readers alike. While we may recognize Henry’s concerns as mildly selfish and largely misguided, his ability to voice them in the narrative puts readers at enough of a remove from the love story that Maynard can create a larger family drama out of the plot, rather than simply romance. It was a surprisingly but ultimately rewarding choice on Maynard’s part to have her youngest, most adolescently-unstable, inside-observer character serve as the narrative voice.
After finishing up Labor Day, I dug into the special post-conclusion section published in my copy which included an interview with the author. It turns out that Maynard actually had a written correspondence with a convict that seems to have partially inspired this story. Someone to whom she refers as Lucky wrote her a letter after reading a series of newspaper columns she had published. This Lucky figure was someone Maynard responded to and, in time, began to feel rather close with. I hate to give away the ending of this story, so skip the remainder of this paragraph and the entirety of the next one if you want to read Maynard’s telling for yourself via her website. But I think the true life conclusion highlights some important truths about the novel’s conclusion and the ideas explored by the author therein. Maynard felt it would be a breach of trust to ask Lucky why he was imprisoned, so she refrained from doing so for the entirety of their correspondence. But when he told her that he was about to be released from jail and planned to visit Maynard and her three children, fear got the better of her. When Maynard contacted the prison to inquire, she was told that Lucky had horrifically murdered his parents and would essentially never be released from jail given the number of years for which he was sentenced. She immediately cut off all correspondence with Lucky.
Though it was disheartening to discover that Lucky was not who Maynard believed him to be, the very fact that she went on to compose a novel dealing with a character not so unlike her imprisoned pen pal signifies the depth of his impact on the author, even though their relationship was entirely based upon written word (although she is a writer, so that may have something to do with how powerfully connected they were through mere letters). Learning about Maynard’s relationship with Lucky elucidates the myriad ways we humans are inclined to make excuses, compose arguments, or erect blinders in an effort to confirm our perceptions with the anticipated or actual truth. In the case of Frank, readers are immediately smitten and recognize the goodness of his character despite whatever faults or flaws may have landed him in the state penitentiary. Readers do not essentialize Frank as a criminal, and for this reason they will seek any evidence available to point to his innate goodness. We are rewarded for our faith in Frank by discovering that his crime was largely accidental, the result of a gross misunderstanding, rather than a reflection of a truly cruel and perverse nature. Likewise, Maynard did not allow herself to question what type of behavior Lucky could have engaged in to end up where he did, because doing so could interfere with her conception of Lucky as a generous, kind, thoughtful, and loving person. The morality of how we exercise these judgments upon others based on their actions, in isolation from the other traits they embody, is a moral dilemma we each need to wrestle with on our own. But the very fact that we do this in a routine way is something Maynard cunningly uses to her advantage in Labor Day to indulge readers and fuel the plot. I can’t speak to the merits of the film, but at least give the novel version a shot first, for it is completely engrossing and serves as a sharp observation on human nature.