Family issues, Japanese brides, and hook hands
If you’re looking for something to read but don’t want to be bogged down by thousand-page epics, Constance McCutcheon’s Woman of the Baths might just be the answer.
A novella, Woman of the Baths takes place primarily in Pittsburgh after the end of World War II. Wagner Fike, a middle-aged member of one of the city’s richest families, finds himself in conflict with a decision made by his son, Ogden. Ogden, whose friendship with a younger man and disagreement with Wagner’s beliefs set him at constant odds with his father, has forged papers for the transfer of a young Japanese woman, Yukiko, out of her country and into the United States. Specifically, the papers allow Yukiko to remain at the Fikes’ residence under the guise of being a “bride” for Ogden’s friend, Ricky Virostik.
Initially, Ogden’s goal is twofold: First to confront his father about his support of the war, especially the brutality of its climax in Japan; and second to fulfill a promise to Virostik, an issue that remains elusive and is fleshed out more and more as the story progresses. Surprisingly, Wagner agrees and becomes caretaker to Yukiko, who will not utter a single word to anyone. Having been a victim of a fire-bombing raid, Yukiko lost both of her hands. Interestingly, Wagner begins to develop feelings for Yukiko as time goes on. As his own wife was recently deceased, Wagner comes to see Yukiko almost as a replacement for her, a sentiment that irks Ogden to no end. Wagner arranges for prosthetic appendages to be made for her, hook-like extensions to her arms that can be covered with a flesh-colored glove, but Yukiko prefers to wear the hooks bare.
Determined to offer Yukiko a place in his world, Wagner brings Yukiko to therapy sessions so that she can learn to use her new hands to perform more complex tasks. Gradually, she gains in proficiency, and Wagner offers her a job as a custodian at a museum his family maintains. Perhaps what sets Wagner apart from his other American counterparts is the fact that when Yukiko starts to live in the public bathrooms, he allows her to. Unlike the rest of his family, who refer to her as “custodian of the toilets,” Wagner makes her new position sound more sophisticated and European, calling her the “custodian of the baths.”
It is most interesting, as well, to note the dynamics between father and son in the novel. Ogden, who intends first of all to show his war-supporting father just how wrong his beliefs were, makes little effort to empathize with Yukiko or get to know her better as his father does. Instead, he acts on behalf of Virostik’s wishes, and is convinced that his father will become a better person on seeing first-hand the people that the war has wounded. At the beginning, Ogden seems a hero, and his father the heartless villain. By the novel’s close, though, McCutheon switches the two roles. Wagner becomes the one to truly see Yukiko’s humanity, and Ogden’s actions on behalf of his friend turn out to have graver consequences.
McCutcheon, who graduated with a masters’ degree in writing from Carnegie Mellon, currently lives in Munich, Germany. She has written two novels in addition to this novella: Elusion and Fit to Print. Her website, which contains more samples of her writing, can be found at www.cmccutcheon.com.