The Mask Maker: A Novel

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2002-03-01
  • Publisher: Univ of Oklahoma Pr
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In The Mask Maker,Diane Glancy tells the story of Edith Lewis, a recently divorced mixed-blood American Indian, as she travels the state of Oklahoma teaching students the art and custom of mask-making. A complex, subtle tale about f1esh-and-blood human beings, this enchanting novel shows how one woman copes with alienation, loss, and questions about identity and, in the end, rediscovers meaning in living. Through Edith's daily life and efforts to teach, Glancy explores the power of the mask and mask-making. When Edith tries reaching out to a listless, alienated student, she knows enough to ask, "Where would you want to go?" He replies, "Nowhere," to which she responds with the advice, "Then make a mask to take you nowhere." For Edith, masks go beyond the limitations of words and surface gloss. "A mask is a face when you have none," she reflects. Yet some stories need to be confronted, so Edith struggles with the question of how to use masks to tell stories without using words. Glancy's Edith is no idealized sage but a very human character struggling as best she can while enduring clueless officials and teachers. When Edith explains to one teacher how the art of mask-making reaches students on a creative, intuitive level, she is chided as impractical: "We're supposed to reach them through math and English." In The Mask Maker,Glancy provides the reader with intriguing new ways of looking at identity, at language, at intangible values, and at love. This captivating novel on the human need for self-expression will delight readers of all ages.


Chapter One

The Road

Edith was a mask maker. She traveled for the Arts Council of Oklahoma. She felt she was an artist in a place without art. A misfit in a practical world. But art was truth. It was revenge. It was masks that held Edith on the road. She had a car full of them. The masks told a story. But Edith hated words. Wobblers. That's what they were. Especially in the mouth of Bill Lewis, her former husband.

Edith worked presenting masks to a world that didn't want them. What was she doing on the road traveling between schools by herself? Maybe the masks kept her from being blown out like the last of the sun she followed.

Edith thought about the masks as she traveled. They were sticky as love--sticky as paint not quite dry, like glue that held her to her former husband. Always back to him. It was a world full of roads that dropped off the earth at the edge of town; then she was on her own. In her nothingness. Without Bill Lewis.

The edge of town was Pawnee, Oklahoma, a remote place by some railroad tracks no one knew about. Had she ever looked at it without a mask? Had she looked at herself?

As Edith traveled, she heard the masks tell their stories:

Everything was broken. The masks got together. They decided they could stop the breaking. They could restore. They could move the world again.

The masks found the evil that was breaking the world. The masks took the evil in their mouths. They chewed. It had lumps like gravy not stirred. They swallowed. Evil growled from their stomachs, but the masks had no stomachs. Therefore, the evil was nowhere.

The masks started the motor of the world. They shifted gears. The world started with a jump. The world has been rolling through space ever since. Once in a while evil catches up from nowhere. But the masks keep the world rolling, and soon the world gets ahead again.

Edith felt the desolation of the road as she drove. The masks filled in the missing parts. Bone upon bone , as Ezekiel said. There were such enormous stories. How could she carry them across the road? How could she make the masks tell the stories without words?

The Queen of Indians

Edith was a vizard maker, a mask maker. She went to schools and presented her masks. She had the students make masks. Edith was Queen of the Masks. Except Indians didn't have a queen. If they did, she would be Queen of the Indians. That's what! But what would an Indian queen do? She would be a queen. She would have a throne. No, thrones. They would be the hills of Oklahoma (where they cropped up). She would have subjects. They would be her masks.

There were princesses, yes. Indian princesses were all over the place. But why was there no QUEEN? One queen could not rule all the different tribes anyway. No, there would have to be as many queens as there were different tribes (which differed vastly) and differing bands within those different tribes. There would have to be queens all over the place. As many queens as princesses. But Edith decided to ignore that fact. She would be the Queen of Indians. She would be the Mask Maker.

Once Edith had stopped for a hitchhiker with her car full of masks. He looked warily into the backseat.

"Is it safe?"

"I make masks," she had told him. "I'm an artist for the State Arts Council. I have to do something with them. Halloween comes only once a year."

He had ridden with her, getting more masky as they traveled. She had told him to get out at the next town.


Every Sunday, Edith opened her map to find the Oklahoma town where she was headed for the week. Benjamin, her youngest son, helped her load the boxes of paints and brushes and masks into the trunk. Christopher, the neighbor's large dog, barked and came running, the neighbor calling, Christopher! Christopher! after him, One mask was not yet dry. Edith saw the blue paint on her finger. She took the mask from the box and put it in the front seat. The rest she hung on a rack across the backseat as if they were children.

Edith looked at her masks. She looked at her watch. She pushed away Christopher, who was standing on her foot, wagging his tail, thumping it against her.

"She'll be back," Benjamin said.

Edith hugged him until he pulled away. She closed the trunk of her car and drove off.

At the corner of Nash and Fourth, she waved at Maybelle, her former mother-in-law, who was turning onto Edith's street.

Before starting across the prairie, Edith stopped in town for gas. A man, also filling his tank, looked at Edith. "Going somewhere?" he asked.

"My job is traveling," Edith answered. "Staying ahead of myself."

Edith paid for the gas and got into the car. Charlie, the attendant, stopped her before she left. Her handed her a couple of dollars. "Pay me when you get back."

She thanked him and turned west from the gas station. She followed the highway beside the railroad tracks, pushing the road map on the seat out of her way. This Sunday she was on her way from Pawnee to Lawton, in the southwest corner of the state. She knew the way.

The sun sat on the hood of the car as Edith drove across the prairie on a stretch of single-lane Highway 64 toward Interstate 35. She heard "Balm of Gilead" on the radio. Edith turned it OFF. It didn't matter that there was nothing on the land. She couldn't see it, even if there was, because of the sun. The light was a mask she followed.

As she drove, she thought of the way her father had rigged up a light, trying to finish a job at night. He was always there when she drove a hitchhiker she picked up, but wouldn't get out at the next town. J. McKennah had been a bricklayer who started jobs and didn't finish. Once a man had dumped a load of bricks from an unfinished job in their yard. I'll get to it , Edith heard her father saying. Edith hated words. They changed meaning; divided. Her father had been able to shift his words. He had made them true in one particular circumstance but not true in another. Edith remembered her mother and father arguing over words. Edith wanted to cover all the bare places. Or was it all the covered places she wanted to make bare? Maybe she was a bricklayer like her father when she made masks. But she wouldn't work with words.

Edith passed open land with some scrub brush, some one-story trees. She heard the trill of grasshoppers in the weeds beside the road as she passed. Why was it still hot, this late in the fall? She knew the earth was burnt after summer, the brown prairie grass tough as hide. Maybe soon there would be gray mornings filled with dew.

She left her two boys, Joseph and Benjamin, ages seventeen and fourteen, with Maybelle, her former mother-in-law. She left Bill Lewis, her former husband. She left a friend, Bill Bixell, but she called him Bix. One Bill was enough. So was one J. McKennah, her father, riding in and out of her thoughts.

Her life always had felt torn up, Edith thought as she drove, always in transition between places though she'd never lived anywhere but Pawnee, Oklahoma. Had she ever been at peace with herself? It was the same with Bill, her former husband. Bix, her friend, was settled in himself, but he could not hold her interest.

Edith always felt unrest over her inability to support herself. "But all you do is make masks," Bill had joked in front of the boys.

The masks swayed on their rack in the backseat. Going somewhere? What'd he think?

At I-35, Edith turned south. A sign read, Oklahoma City 50 miles . At least now she wasn't headed into the sun. She touched the mask again to see if it was dry. Once she held it to her face as a car passed. A mask is a face when you have none.

Just north of Oklahoma City, she took Highway 40 to the southwest. She imagined her father got out at the first tollbooth, but she knew he was still with her. If he had gotten out, he'd only be waiting again at the next stop.

Soon it was nearly dark. The prairie was not flat in southwestern Oklahoma, but rolled with low hills and a few trees camped along the horizon.

The next morning, Edith entered Eisenhower High School in Lawton, Oklahoma, carrying a box of paints and brushes. She went into an office marked Principal Pofar . A clerk pointed down the hall. Edith thought maybe she would find someone to carry in the rest of her boxes.

The art room was dusty, empty but for a few tables and chairs pushed to a corner. Edith was disappointed in the room. She stood there a moment before she sat the box on the floor. She pulled the tables to the middle of the room with a roar. She placed the chairs at the tables. She dusted them. IS THERE NEVER ANYONE TO HELP ME? she thought. She strung a rope across the front of the room on which she hung her masks. She looked at them a moment. No, there was no one to help her carry in the rest of her supplies.

The students and teacher entered as she finished her last trip from the car. She was out of breath. Disorganized. Not ready. Getting settled in a new school was hard. She lost her sense of purpose, momentum, and had to start again. Edith held the masks to her face. "The masks are wordless. You can make words for them. A mask can give you answers. Or you can leave them silent. That's the way I want them. No one talking in your face." Edith just wanted to get through the week. What else was there she could do? What do masks do? Joseph asked her once. She was still trying to figure that out.

One student cut out a cardboard mask of his father. War-painted it.

"Go to your room," he said to the mask.

"No," the mask answered.

"You're grounded. You can't talk. I haven't given you a tongue." The boy drove a wad of wet newspaper into the mouth of his mask.

The teacher watched.

Edith looked at the teacher. "You can reach a student through a mask."

"We're supposed to reach them through math and English."

Edith made a round mask and painted it white. "The moon. Not just any moon. The harvest moon," she told the students facing her, looking to her for the meaning of the class, for the meaning of the masks they knew they were supposed to make. She wanted the tables in a circle, but there were too many students, and she didn't want to interrupt her work to change the tables. She might lose their attention, not that she had it anyway. "The moon can be bright and round, or it can be thin," Edith told them, "but it can only be what it is in relation to another: the sun shining on it, or the place on earth from which it's seen, or the phases it's in, from a sliver to a full circle."

"The earth is that way, too," a girl said.

"The moon is a mask," Edith told her. "Round and white as--"

Another girl answered, "--nothing."

"What do you think?" Edith asked another student.

He looked at her as if no one ever asked what he thought.

Principal Potifar passed the art room and looked at Edith, but she didn't notice. The teacher who sat in the room with Edith ignored her. The teacher was grading papers--doing her own work. Edith noticed.

What did it matter?

In the lunchroom, Edith was introduced to other teachers. She ate. There was small talk. The teachers' lunchroom was off to the side of the cafeteria. Through the door, Edith could see the noisy cafeteria line, the cinder-block walls of the large institutional room, the tables and seats that were one piece, almost like picnic tables.

"You got children?" one of the teachers asked.

"Two boys. They stay with Maybelle, my mother-in-law. Former mother-in-law. She's better with them than I am. My husband and I didn't get along, but she was worth getting married for. I can handle kids I don't know better than my own."

"My mother-in-law couldn't handle my kids," the teacher said.

"Bill, the boys' father, takes them sometimes. Bix, my friend, also keeps an eye on them."

The teachers went back to their conversation.

"It matters."

"You're asking."

"I could."

Principal Potifar talked with someone, possibly an assistant, in the corner. Edith watched them a moment.

In the art room, Edith made another mask. She placed a gauze over the student's face, marked an opening for a nose and mouth, and cut. She placed the gauze on the face again and spread it with plaster of paris. Other students watched. "Give them a name that's an action: Uprooting the garden with your dirt bike. Blame it on your brother. Lying . You know you can say anything in a mask," Edith said.

"I don't have a dirt bike," a student told Edith. "My dad can't afford it."

"And what is your mask doing?" Edith asked another student

"It's singing to itself," the student said.

"What's it singing?"

"Balm of Gilead."

"I heard that on the radio as I drove here," Edith told the student.

"Where do you live?"

"In Pawnee."

"Is that in Oklahoma?"

"Northeast of Oklahoma City. My masks and I drove down yesterday."


"To be with you."

"Why would you want to come someplace like this?" the student asked, looking at the abandoned room that resembled a war zone.

"You haven't been anywhere?" Edith asked.

"Where is there to go?"

"Where would you want to go?"

"Nowhere," the student answered.

"Then make a mask to take you nowhere," Edith said. "Come back and tell me what it was like."

Edith saw the teacher frown and look away while she was talking.

"What are we supposed to do with those masks?" a teacher asked in the hall.

"You can come out from hiding in a mask," Edith told her.

After class, she wrote a note on the blackboard: Could you mop the room or leave a broom? Thanks .

Edith nodded at Principal Potifar as she left Eisenhower High School for the day, but he was preoccupied or looking past her.

After school, Edith sat on the bed in her motel room. She was going to make notes of what she remembered from school. There was something about the wad of wet newspaper the boy had made; it seemed like his mask was eating the moon. Her mask was the moon. And the earth was eating it. She belonged to the wind but gravity pulled her back. Edith was going to think about the wad of newspaper, but she lay down and was soon asleep. Before she knew it, she felt the GULPING. In a dream, she walked through her house in Pawnee, the rooms changing shape as she walked. The rooms opened their mouths as if they were masks. The rooms could be as large as the Oklahoma prairie she passed on the way to Lawton. When the masks opened their mouths, there were other masks inside. GULP! The masks did not speak. They made animal sounds. They made a line-of-trees-on-the-horizon sound. They made star-and-planet sounds. It was language, but not human language.

When Edith woke, it was nearly dark. She looked from the window and saw a cafe. She washed her face and crossed the street.

In Dothan's Cafe, Edith looked at the clock. It was 8:10. She sat at a table near the cash register. "Too late for the special?"

The waitress went to the kitchen. She returned, shaking her head. "He can warm it up."

They looked at her in the cafe, but not because she was J. McKennah's daughter. Two men at a side table were still watching her. Maybe because Edith looked groggy from sleep. Why hadn't she seen Bill Lewis as a mask for her father? Bill didn't lay brick, but he was always doing catch-up; he was always behind. She remembered the disappointment of marriage; how she had tolerated it until she lost respect for herself, always giving in, settling for what she didn't want to settle for. The anger was there; the love, also. If she found respect for herself, it would be on her own.

Edith looked at her fingers. She looked out the window, but nothing passed on the street. She looked around the cafe. The bright fluorescent lights on the ceiling drove her back into herself, away from the worn flooring, the old paneling, the Formica tables and chairs, the old menus in their shiny plastic covers. There was nothing to see inside the cafe either.

"You passing through Lawton?" the waitress asked.

"I work in the schools as an art teacher."

The waitress looked at her and nodded as if she understood. The people in the cafe still looked at Edith. It was because she was new. She fidgeted with the paper napkin. They would get used to her in Dothan's Cafe, but the first time in a new town was uncomfortable.

"The Arts Council of Oklahoma sends me to schools that request an artist. I work with the students." Edith felt the need to explain. After a short silence, Edith said to the waitress, "I'm here five weeks. Usually it's just one."

A bell rang.

The waitress said, "I know there's no art or music at school. My girl's in the tenth grade." The waitress went to the pick up window and returned with a plate. "Roast beef and mashed potatoes. Corn."

"I forgot to ask your name," Edith said.

"Mildred," she answered. "And yours?"

"Edith Lewis."

The waitress went to another customer. Edith ate the meal by herself. Masked potatoes , she thought. She looked up, somewhat self-consciously, as if her thoughts showed. "I'll probably see you tomorrow night," Edith said as she paid for the meal.

Edith crossed the street from the cafe in a fierce wind.

What if she had trouble sleeping? She usually woke as soon as there was light, but she had slept so long in the afternoon, she worried about waking in the morning if she didn't get to sleep. What if the masks kept her awake with their mumbling?

"The wind is blowing," she said to the man in the office.

"That's what it does here."

"I need a wake-up call at 7:00."

The man nodded and wrote it down.

Edith listened to the news in her room. There'd been a shoot-out on Interstate 35 near Moore, south of Oklahoma City. The reporter didn't know yet what had happened. A bullet had hit the Chapel of Love. Edith knew where it was. She had passed it on the interstate on her way to a residency in Purcell. For some reason, she had noticed it. It was like the place where she had married Bill Lewis when they eloped.

Edith chose four masks for the corners of the room. She placed another one on the floor, in the center, at the foot of her bed. She hung one from the ceiling light.






Then the seventh direction.

Wherever I am, is where I am.

Help me through this week.

Edith looked at the phone. Turned out the light. The neon blinked through the drapes. She heard another car arrive. The door banged in the next room. She heard laughter. She sat up, looked at the phone again.

She called the boys, though it would add to her motel bill.

"Ben, while I'm gone you and Joe lay those bricks around the tree where the grass won't grow. You fed the cat? Where's Grandma? No, I don't want to talk to her. If Joe was there, he'd come to the phone."

After she talked to Benjamin, she sat in the darkness of the room, lay back down. A tear fell from the corner of her eye. She put a mask over her face, soon took it off.

Edith could not sleep. Bill Lewis slipped into her thoughts. It was anger that stirred her. Not him, but her inability to handle her relationship with him. Always back to her. Why was marriage an adjustment on her part, not his?

She had to flush it all out now and then. The more disappointment Bill faced in his business, the more stylized his behavior. He turned in on himself. Edith could recognize other men who were not doing well. It was the way they talked, behaved. Had Bill ever known himself, or only the idea he wanted to have of himself?

Edith got out her notebook and looked at the drawings for masks she had made for Lawton. Her work had to spread over five weeks. Why did they want her so LONG? What would she do? How would she last? Just keep making masks? She felt restless. She wanted to make something. She thought of the Halloween party next weekend. What would she wear? What mask? She looked at the ones hanging in the motel room. She looked at the chest of drawers. There was a bag of Hershey Kisses she had bought at school. Some club was selling them. That was it. A Hershey Kiss! She opened the bag. She sat one on the corner of the chest. She sat on the bed looking at it. A silver tower on the edge of town. A space ship. She would go as a Hershey Kiss. She drew it in her notebook. She would wrap a frame with aluminum foil.

Edith still could not sleep. She wandered through her house in Pawnee in her thoughts and looked at the masks on her walls. Her house was a refuge, like one of the wildlife sanctuaries she saw on the road. She got up again but didn't want to get out her paints; most of them were at school anyway. She could drive into the prairie night. She could call Bix. She could call her former husband. She could call her sisters. But they would all be asleep and sound impatient and questioning on the phone; her former husband more than anyone, no matter how often he had woken her when he came in late at night.

She thought of looking at her notebook again. She turned on the radio, then turned it off because the words irritated her. But she thought in words, didn't she? Maybe she would just think in masks .

Edith sat on the edge of the bed awhile, then lay back down.

Somehow, Edith slept. The masks moved in her dreams. She wanted to see the ancestors. She wanted to see visions. She wanted to dream of another world, but she saw her own car on the highway. She saw the students who needed help. She saw her own fear of not being able to help. Her masks were a camel train going to Egypt. They carried spices, balm, and myrrh. They carried Joseph, whom his brothers had sold. What was that to her? Joseph had a coat. He was a leader; the stars had bowed to him. His brothers were jealous. Was she dreaming the worries she had for her sons, Joseph and Benjamin? Had she sold part of herself? Was it Joseph, her oldest son, she had failed? With a father like Bill Lewis and a grandfather like J. McKennah, how could he be different? Or was she the Joseph who was sold?

Edith sent her dreams upward, but they got trapped in her thoughts. Where were the spirits? Where were the VISIONS? For Edith, visions were full of determination to get her work done, her boys raised. She wanted to find SOMETHING MEANINGFUL TO DO WITH MASKS. Something her former husband would respect and not laugh at behind her back (sometimes in her face). The teachers also. What was she doing here? Edith knew they thought. Bill Lewis had needed her help. If only she could have earned something from her masks. It wasn't until later that Edith had gone to work for the Arts Council. She had let Bill down. She should have helped earn their living. What else could she do but work with masks? Give her a gun. She'd fire into the Chapel of Love. Full of promise and hope that collapsed like an old star.

She woke and lay in bed thinking about her dreams. Where had the spirits gone? Why didn't they talk to her? She thought again of Bix, her friend. She thought of her former husband, her boys, her mother-in-law. She thought of herself as a mask maker. She belonged to her masks; she lived in a mask maker's house. But she also belonged to the world-that-was.

In her dreams, her boys moved away from her. She was holding out her arms to them, but her hands were MASKS. What were they doing? She wanted to keep the boys in school. But what would they do in Pawnee? In Oklahoma? In the world? Wasn't that the struggle her former husband faced? What was there for him to do? In the end, she felt it got down to keeping them alive. She knew Joseph was careless in his truck, driving across fields, jumping ditches, taking potshots at signposts on county roads. Who knew what else the boys did?

Sometimes Edith thought her masks were the old world that moved independently of her. Her life was built on a different tradition now: Christianity. But it didn't mean anything to her either. She wanted to be a Christian, but Christianity got in her way. Edith thought of Bix still teaching Sunday school. She thought of the sermons on Joseph in Egypt. The minister in Pawnee had been stuck there for several weeks. For some reason, she liked to think of Joseph in the pit while his brothers talked about what to do with him.


Excerpted from The Mask Maker by Diane Glancy. Copyright 2002 by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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