Nonfictional elements in Russell Banks’s “A Permanent Member of the Family”

The stories in Russell Banks’s collection, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” are tied together by a common theme of divorce. The story from which the collection draws its title is told from the perspective of a father whose family, many years prior, went through divorce. The story serves as the father’s “reclaiming” of a story that happened thirty-five years ago, and has become somewhat of a “family legend.” The story in question is of the circumstances which came about after the divorce and how they, inadvertently, lead to the father’s accidental killing of the family dog. While the story was published as a work of fiction, it is likely that the author used personal experience in writing the story. Upon first reading, I questioned how fictional this story actually was, particularly after finding that Banks, seventy-three when the story was first published, would be a similar age to the narrator. Upon further research, Banks also was raised in the place which the story is set, “a shabbily quaint village in southern New Hampshire.” (Banks 81) Therefore, though the story remains officially “fiction,” there were definitely elements of fact drawn from in its creation, as I believe there are in every work. Furthermore, the story’s, and collection’s, themes of divorce and family is something that the author is intimately familiar with. In an interview with The Washington Post, Banks stated that “one thing that has struck me through the years, first as a child of divorce and then as a divorced man myself…is the incredible, powerful need we have for family, its ability to provide us with strength and intimacy, support and love — and then, on the other hand, the incredible fragility of family.” (Burns) These are precisely the struggles which the narrator of “A Permanent Member of the Family” faces alongside his loved ones. The story brings to light the need we have for family through the interaction between a husband, wife, and their children after being separated, even if only a few houses down the roles. It illustrates the “fragility of family” through the vehicle of Sarge, the family dog, who refuses to stay at the house of the mother, and follows the daughters to their father’s house every time they make the trip down the street. In the words of the narrator, Sarge “functioned in our newly disassembled family as the last remaining link to our preseparation…to a time of innocence when all of us…still believed in the permanence of our family unit, our pack.” (Banks 86) Given the connection between Banks’s responses in the interview and themes developed in the narration, it can be inferred that Banks drew much from his own life and personal experience when creating this story. His young life as a child of divorced parents, and adult live as a divorcee himself, gave him insight into the characters of not only the narrator, but the daughters as well, and therefore allowed nonfictional elements to appear in and enhance this fictional story.

Banks, Russell.”A Permanent Member of the Family.” The O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed. Laura
Furman. Comp. Tessa Hadley, Kristen Iskandrian, and Michael Parker. New York:
Vintage Anchor, 2015. 80-91. Print. Ser. 2015.

Brown, Wesley. “Who to Blame, Who to Forgive.” The New York Times, 10 Sept.
1989. Web. 9 May 2016.

Burns, Carole. “Q&A with Russell Banks about the Special Quality of Short Stories.”
Washington Post. The Washington Post, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 May 2016.

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