I only saw my great-aunt a few times – she lived far away – but in my family, she was kind of a legend. She wore purple every day, and kept a stash of matching purple toilet paper that she’d break out for company. She watched the Denver Broncos every Sunday with her old lady friends and yelled at the television when the referees made her cross. She told stories in a sweet deadpan – like one, the last time I saw her, that ended with her getting chased by a mountain lion in her underwear. And my grandmother adored her, so by some transitive property of affection, I did too. A few months after her last visit, I found out she’d hurt her back pretty badly and wasn’t getting out much. So I started writing to her. It was only years later, after she passed away, that my grandmother told me what happened when one of my letters arrived. It would sit out on the table, sealed, for days. My aunt wanted to pick just the right time to read it.
I have to admit I do the same thing when I open an issue of the New Yorker and find a piece by Katherine Boo. I don’t think she publishes more than a story or two a year. And fewer, lately. But the stories are remarkable. She takes on heavy, complicated themes – social policy and the lives of the poor – and brings a world of vivid characters to life.
Take the “The Marriage Cure,” a New Yorker feature from 2003. A group of academics and policy types had suggested that pervasive singleness in poor neighborhoods, often assumed to be a symptom of poverty, might instead be a root cause. If they were right, a campaign to promote marriage in poor neighborhoods could help improve their lot. One state, Oklahoma, decided to give it a try. Boo went to see how it was working.
Boo could have made the idea the main thing, and profiled a bunch of people. Or she could have picked one person to be the protagonist – a single woman, or a marriage promoter – and zoomed in close. But she did neither of those things. Instead, she wrote about a friendship. The piece begins:
One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public housing project named Sooner Haven, twenty-two-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lamé thong and declared herself ready for church. Her best friend in the project, Corean Brothers, was already in the parking lot, fanning away her hot flashes behind the wheel of a smoke-belching Dodge Shadow. “Car’s raggedy, but it’ll get us from pillar to post,” Corean said when Kim climbed in…
I love this. Our lives are stories of relationships. We aren’t us without them. But it’s actually pretty rare to see authentic, intimate relationships at the center of a reported magazine piece. It’s tough reporting, for sure. People often guard their meaningful relationships closer then they guard their secrets. They’ll tell you the most private things – painful things, shocking things – and then politely hustle you out when their neighbor shows up, or their kid gets home from school. But Boo writes about Kim and Corean and the people in their lives like she’s known them for ages, and has only now, finally, gotten around to writing about them. And they talk like no one else is listening.
When Corean visits a man in prison who, in both sustaining and vexing ways, has become something more than a friend, Boo observes quietly: “Corean stretched her legs, letting her foot graze the instep of his state-issued sneaker.” Then she returns home, weary, and her son, a high-school senior, removes her sandals and sits with her in their dark apartment, squeezing her swollen feet.
“Corean remembered how, when she was a child, hardship had turned members of her family against each other, and was grateful for her own family’s closeness,” Boo writes. “But she also knew that single mothers could be seduced by it. Husbandless, they treated their [daughters] as confidantes and their [sons] as stand-in partners, and were shattered when those companions left them behind.” At least a half-dozen scenes in the piece are so intimate, they’re startling.
So of course, Boo goes with Kim and Corean to marriage class. And Boo lays out the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand: In theory, it’s easier to make ends meet and easier to raise kids as a couple, but none of the women in the class had had great experiences with men. Most of them had grown up without fathers, or been left, or been beaten; two of the women had been with violent criminals. In the projects where Kim and Corean live, Boo writes, “relationships with men were often what stopped an ambitious woman from escaping.” So, it’s complicated.
The piece never really lands explicitly on one side or the other. That’s a sign of Boo’s ambition, I think. The marriage class happens pretty early in Boo’s narrative, and she barely returns to it. Instead, she follows Kim and Corean out into their world – a world they face with resilience and grace and good judgment and, still, problems seem to find them, and cascade. “One unacknowledged consolation of struggling in the inner city is the lack of time one has to indulge romantic discontent,” Boo writes.
Ultimately, one of the women’s chances at a good, lasting relationship seem better than her friend’s. But I’m not going to give away the ending. One of the pleasures of Boo’s writing is that you come to care about her characters and how things turn out for them. I’ll just say that in the end the piece is about hope, and fear, and work, and health, and money, and companionship, as much as it is about marriage. In other words, it’s a true love story.
Douglas McGray (@dougmcgray) has written features for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and This American Life. He is also the editor in chief of Pop-Up Magazine, the co-editor of My Life Is True, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation (which hosted Katherine Boo the year she wrote “The Marriage Cure”).