The trees and grass were still green as summer, but the air and sky had thinned indefinably, as they did in autumn, and the first few leaves, dropped from what trees you could never tell, were drifting downwards in the sunlit air.
–Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin
I studied classics at a large university, spent hours giggling and making flashcards at the Student Union, and pored over Liddell and Scott at home when I wasn’t reading Margaret Drabble or E. F. Benson’s Lucia books.
In other words, my college days were not much like those described in Tam Lin.
And perhaps that’s why I like the book so much.
Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, set at a small college in Minnesota in the ’70s, is a whimsical chronicle of an undergraduate education. Part college novel, part offbeat fantasy, it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History–with a dash of the ballad Tam Lin.
The heroine, Janet Carter, an English major at Blackstock College, arrays her children’s books and science fiction on the shelves in her dorm and makes friends on the basis of shared reading. One of her roommates, Molly, a Shakespeare-loving biology major, is a soulmate, but the other, Tina, a conservative pink-jacket-wearing pre-med major, annoys her by asking why she’s an English major.
Look,” said Janet, irritated, “if the thing you liked best to do in the world was read, and somebody offered to pay your room and board and give you a liberal arts degree if you would just read for four years, wouldn’t you do it?”
The three women befriend a group of male classics majors who not only translate Homeric graffiti without need of a dictionary, but mount an outrageous production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady Is for Burning that insults the head of the classics department. There’s never a dull moment. Janet can’t help thinking they seem more like theater majors than classics majors.
Although Janet takes Greek, she refuses to change her major to classics, and must struggle every term over this issue with her classics professor advisor. Much of the tension among her male friends emanates from echoes of mysterious clashes between students and the control freak department head, Medeous, a mad redhead who is rumored to seduce men and women, and who insists that the whole department go horseback riding on Halloween (they look more like elves than classicists.)
The Blackstock folklore also centers on the classics department: all classics majors are said to be crazy (well, they are, we know!), and the Fourth Erickson Ghost, tVictoria Thompson, a classics major who committed suicide in the late 19th century after learning she was pregnant, throws books out the window of a dormitory: her favorites are the Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary, Chase and Phillips (a Greek primer), and The Scarlet Letter.
Janet, the daughter of a romantic poetry professor and a townie, was prepared for eccentricities. She did not, however, expect an actual ghost.
What the hell is going on at Blackstock?
Odd though it may seem, I find Janet’s poetic descriptions of the midwestern weather and landscape soothing and remedial in the dark days of fall. She describes the “luminous grayish-yellow” skies after rain; “a small meadow of goldenrod on a dusty path” in fall; and a snowy day in March when “the sky had already lost the profound and chilly color it got in winter.”
This is one of my favorite books. It’s about what Janet reads, and how others respond to what Janet reads. It’s probably not for everybody.