The Lonely Voice: 'Blue in Chicago' by Bette Howland
Bette Howland’s “Blue in Chicago’ is a story about bearing witness in a city that the author knew well and that becomes a backdrop for a story that has a poignancy that blooms from seemingly ordinary situations. There was a time when Bette Howland might not have been considered among the pantheon of Chicago writers, but the story “Blue in Chicago” –just that story alone—solidifies her place among the greats.
The story begins with a narrator recalling a murder near her apartment. Then we’re on the move—en route to a family wedding. We’re on a bus observing all the other passengers. We enter the lobby of a grandmother’s apartment building, an uncle’s home. We go to the wedding…and the reception. We go everywhere with Bette Howland’s protagonist whose details in this story mirror many of the things we know about the author’s real life—including that she was a divorced mother of two children. That she was keenly observant. That she loved to read…or at least as we learn in this story…she sometimes carried books around but was too busy observing her surroundings to focus on reading.
What do these things all have to do with each other? The structure of the story actually makes perfect sense when you look at the very first thing you know about this story. The title. “Blue in Chicago.”
This story holds all of Chicago—high rises, reception spaces, lobbies, streets, small apartments. Family homes and bus rides —These are the loneliest places of all, even when they’re full of people.
And what does “Blue” have to do with anything?
In his memoir in essays, Still No Word from You, Peter Orner writes about Bette Howland’s memoir W-3. In that work, Howland shares that she took a bottle of pills and ends up being placed in a locked psychiatric ward of a South Side hospital after a short stay in an emergency room.
The memoir is much more about the people in the ward than about herself. Writes Orner, “Howland nearly completely disappears into the stories of the people she now lives among. This is how she endures it. She becomes first and foremost, a witness.”
In “Blue in Chicago,” it feels as though the narrator takes this same approach and resists succumbing to this simmering low feeling about her own life. She tries, anyway. She is removed from the murder she mentions but then tells us how connected she feels to it. It happened in her neighborhood and she, like the victim, is a graduate student. She must rely on the good will of family to get her to the wedding, and although in the process, she must also bear the verbal jabs from these folks—about her appearance and her station in life—we also learn a lot about them.
We learn about the chronic sorrows of each person she encounters.
We ride the bus with her. We go to the wedding. We enter Uncle Rudy’s house and even pore over the family photo album. Gradually—with her—we lose our resolve to be steady and strong as her uncle gives her the most unlikely of parting gifts as she leaves his home. What does he give her? What does Bette Howland offer to us?
Listen. Peter Orner and I discuss Bette Howland’s “Blue in Chicago.
Peter Orner is the author of the essay collection Still No Word from You. His previous collection of essays is Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. He is also the author of two novels and three story collections, including Maggie Brown & Others. Peter Orner is the director of creative writing at Dartmouth College.