Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953) – a review

Life among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s haunting classic short story “The Lottery” made her famous in 1948, and subsequent books cemented her brand of psychological terror. So when she came out with Life Among the Savages in 1953, reviewers  were delighted and surprised by her cheery and wry observations of life with four children and husband in a shabby, rambling house in Vermont.

It turns out that Life Among the Savages, and its follow-up, Raising Demons, were idealized (and somewhat-to-fairly fictionalized) portrayals of the family’s chaotic life and individual eccentricities.

These cleaned-up memoirs may well have inspired the genre that Laura Shapiro called “the literature of domestic chaos,” later perfected by Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck. The influence of these mid- to late-20th century “momoirs” reverberates into today’s motherhood blogs, the numbers of which stretch into the infinite on the web.


A 1953 review of Life Among the Savages

From the original 1953 review by Jerry Parker in The Press-Democrat (CA) of Life Among the Savages:  Readers of Shirley Jackson’s earlier stories, “The Lottery,” and Hangsaman, who may have thought she was like the witch in Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, are in for a pleasant surprise when they read Life Among the Savages.

She’s a young and pleasant and humorous person who puts up with an awful lot from her family. She has  husband who shoots at bats and four will and abnormal children. I say abnormal because I’ve never met any, except my own, who were normal.

When the lease on their city apartment was not renewed, Jackson, her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and their children moved to Vermont.

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The lottery by Shirley Jackson

See also: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
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This old (noisy and full) house

“Our house,” she says, “is old and noisy and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about 5,000 books; I expect that when we finally overflows and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.

“We also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks.

“This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and desk and a light of some kind. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books.”


Shepherding the four children

Most of Jackson’s life is spent shepherding (to put it quaintly) her four children — Laurie, Jannie, Sally, and Barry. She is always cooking meals for them, buying clothes, playing cowboys and Indians with them, and sometimes, she tries to curb their incorrigible ways.

Considering the buffeting she takes, she writes about it all quite gracefully and wittily. She is often outwitted by her offspring. When Laurie (he’s a boy and that’s short of Laurence) starts kindergarten he comes home with dreadful tales about the antics of a boy named Charles.

“Charles got spanked today,” he reported once, “he hit the teacher.” And another time, “Charles had to stay inside during recess — he bounced a seesaw on the head of a little girl.”

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Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

Life Among the Savages on* and Amazon*
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Offbeat children, unpredictable husband and furnace

Then Charles, according to Laurie, began to mend his ways. Occasionally, though, he backslid. At the next school meeting, Jackson eagerly spoke to the kindergarten teacher as regards Laurie and Charles. Concerning Laurie, the teacher said, “We had a little trouble adjusting but he’s a fine helper now.”

Jackson observed that that the early trouble might have been due to the influence of Charles. The teacher was surprised. “Charles?” she said, “We don’t have a Charles in the kindergarten.”

All of the children have personalities that are sharply etched in these pages. Jannie’s burbling make a cheerful counterpoint to the story. One of her morning songs goes like this: “On earth, what are you doing? On earth, what are you doing? I am going splickety-splot. I am going thumpety-thump. We do dig and it does rain.”

Besides raising her children, Shirley Jackson also battles with a furnace that sometimes won’t start. She also takes care of her husband. He, as I said before, shoots bats.

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Raising demons by Shirley Jackson - cover

You might also like:  Raising Demons – a review
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Quotes from Life Among the Savages

“Our house is old, and noisy, and full. when we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks.” 

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”Sooner or later, I suppose, there must be in every mother’s life the inevitable moment when she has to take two small children shopping in one big store.”

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“I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime.” 

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“Sally at this time gave up any notion of being a co-operative member of a family, named herself “Tiger” and settled down to an unceasing, and seemingly endless, war against clothes, toothbrushes, all green vegetables, and bed.”

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Shirley Jackson house, Prospect St., N. Bennington


One of the houses occupied by the Hyman-Jackson family
in N. Bennington, VT, as it looks today
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More about Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

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