Book Review: Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, Irene Schram (1972)

3/5 (Average)

“And he shot a little duck,

Right through the middle of the

Head, head, head.”

Nursery song (29)

Irene Schram’s near-future (?) shocker Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (1972) subjects a fifth-grade class and their teacher to a terrifying series of violent travails at the hands of emotionless men. Told mostly from the perspective of the young students who write their thoughts in a school notebook, Schram presents a wide-ranging critique of contemporary American society (pollution, Vietnam, police brutality, et al.). Despite the resilience of children, society will win. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I found Ashes, Ashes an occasionally successful exercise in epistemological displacement and the effects of normalized trauma weakened by a lack of focus and moments of excess that verge on comical. 

In a nameless city in a nameless city park, the first rituals of spring unfold. School children lace their fingers through the new grass–“some of us laid our faces in it, because it felt and smelled so good” (14)–unaware of the physical carnage about to unfold. A smoke cloud from a nearby incinerator interrupts the quiet revelry. Their teacher, Miss Love, notices a band new shelter at the edge of the park… Escaping from the cloud, they soon discover the shelter is a trap: “we saw that all the tables and chairs and food machines had disappeared” (23). Taken in hearses to a holding facility that deliberately evokes a Concentration Camp, the children must stick together in the face of the violent whim of their unknown captors.

Schram succeeds in the basic premise of the work: a notebook’s worn pages as a form of reflective solace for the children (and later their teacher) caught in a nightmare beyond comprehension. The novel itself is an artifact of the event. I tend to avoid novels told from the perspective of children but I found Nadia, the most frequent narrator, a compelling character who writes to ward off the terror: “I just don’t stop writing or let my mind hold still even for a second” (43). The effect loses its power as other children start to contribute to the notebook. 

There are moments where Schram’s overall message is overrun by comical chaos. Horror movies à la Cube (1997) place unknowing people in a series of hellish puzzles with deadly traps. Usually after the initial displacement, the victims identify fragments of logic to control and escape their environment. This never happens in Ashes, Ashes. Instead one illogical trap leads to another as the guards attempt to “compel” the children to their deaths in paroxysms of mayhem. Yes, most of the paroxysms connect to the societal critique Schram’s leveling… but pits with piranhas and uncontrollable cars felts more shoddy YA dystopia trials than focused The Word For World is Forest (1972)-style kick in the gut. 

Missteps aside, the narrative builds to a powerful moment when the children are asked to join their oppressors. Rather than release, the children must participate in the forces they have resisted.  The parts are all here–a mysterious imprisonment, the spectral older children who have managed to survive who flit in and out of the narrative, the novel as artifact of trauma–but the final product lacks cohesion.

Authorial Archaeology or a Bit About Irene Schram 

I’ve uncovered a few fragments about Irene Schram’s literary activities and life online. Here are the highlights of what I’ve found. Between 1966 and 1969, she published articles and poems in the Chicago Review, a student-run magazine at the University of Chicago. Her poems appeared in Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s December, no. 10 (1968) and her author blurb indicates two additional poetry chapbooks. In addition to numerous small press poetry publications in the early 70s, Schram wrote a semi-autobiographical (?) story on lesbian sexual self-realization for Amazon Quarterly, No. 3 (1974). In the same year, she produced a radio program on WBAI titled “Current Themes in Women’s Writing: Masturbation” that explored “the evolution of women’s consciousness through poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction.” Right after the publication of her only novel, she received an entry in Jack Hicks’ Cutting Edges: Young American Fiction for the 70’s (1973). From these fragments it appears she attended the University of Chicago and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Perhaps her novel-writing career was curtailed by the negative review–“meretricious,” on borrowed “knee‐jerk significance,” and “you might as well watch two hours of old public‐service spots on Channel 9”– in the New York Times? It’s a shame. The review is unnecessarily brutal on a first novel that shows promise. I can find little evidence of her literary activity after 1974. I wonder what path she took. 

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, Irene Schram (1972)

    • I love the word “meretricious”! And if it were leveled at me, I dunno how I would react. hah.

      Random Gore Vidal story: Had a professor of Ancient Roman domestic architecture who hung out in Rome all the time with the intelligentsia of the day. And one time, while in a barber he frequented, Gore Vidal popped in for a haircut. And a hoopla proceeded to happen in the back that my professor noticed and it involved a HUGE rat that appeared in the barber’s bathroom. And they were trying to sneak it out in a towel past Gore Vidal without him knowing. The staff later joked that the Tiber River periodically flooded forcing the rats out of their warrens into the bathrooms and basements of the subterranean reaches of the ancient city.

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