Highlights of a Life
Joan Chase was born in the small town of Wooster, Ohio, and her family moved around extensively when she was young. Migrating from town to town in Ohio—wherever her father could find work—Joan found herself “crazy about being on the farm, and being part of a big family. It was wonderful to have so much family around me.”
As an young adult, Chase moved to Maryland where she attended school and received a bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) from the University of Maryland. In 1980, she became an assistant director of the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL. Ragdale is a place where writers and artists of all disciplines can find uninterrupted time to work in a peaceful setting. Situated on 50 acres of virgin prairie, Ragdale provides living and working space for more than 200 writers, visual artists, and composers from all over the United States and from many other countries. Immersed in the craft of writing, Chase remained at Ragdale until 1984.
In 1983, while she was still in tenure at Lake Forest, Joan published her first book, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia— A beautiful story of twentieth-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950’s. The book went on to win several awards, including Best Midwest Fiction Award from Friends of American Writers (1983), Best Fiction in Midwest Award from Friends of Literature (1983), Best Fiction in Middle States Award from Society of Midland Authors (1983), Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award from PEN American Center (1983), and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in Fiction by an American Woman from University of Rochester (1984). The Washington Post Book World referred to the Queen of Persia as “Daily life exhilarated with the richness and evocativeness of poetry,” and Publishers Weekly called it “a stunning first novel” and “announced Chase as a brilliantly talented writer.”
Her second work, The Evening Wolves, published in 1989, “confirms her virtuoso skill with language; nearly every sentence startles with dazzling imagery and poignant insights” (Publishers Weekly). The book is about the “mercurial, hot-tempered, grandiloquent, impetuous and generally impecunious Francis Clemmons [who] is raising his motherless children Margy, Ruthann and Tommy, their lives a procession of shabby apartments in the rundown sections of different Southern towns. Domineering and manipulative, alternately bullying and charming the girls, he plays them against each other, encouraging their rivalry for his attention and love.”
When the children were little, Clemmons “initiated a peculiar, cruel game of big bad wolf, deliberately luring his daughters into his arms and then hurting them—(“Every little girl wants to play with the wolf, wants to see if she can get the best of him”)—ostensibly to teach them the meaning of life. When Francis marries a young widow, Gloria, she too becomes a pawn in his self-indulgent gamesmanship, which serves to keep his family in perpetual, high-velocity turmoil. Chase is masterly at revealing personality through her articulate characters’ dialogue. The novel’s point of view moves among the siblings and their stepmother, each relating events and making trenchant observations about the family synergistics. Francis, the man who pulls the strings, is never heard from in his own voice, although his speech patterns are repeated through his children’s’ unconscious mimicry…. The Evening Wolves is a magnificently involving, imaginative and memorable novel, a portrait of a family painted in vivid, indelible colors” (Publishers Weekly, 1989).
In 1991, Chase published a collection of 11 stories, Bonneville Blue, taking “the reader back to the lost but unforgotten world of first families” (Library Journal, 1991). In “Aunt Josie” a woman remembers the summer she was 13 and in the care of her enchanting aunt. The simple plot concerns an ordinary evening that she, Josie, and Josie’s children spend at a local drugstore having sodas. Yet on another level, the story explores the girl’s love for Josie and all she learns from Josie about being a woman. Similarly, in “Elderberries and Souls” a young girl in love with her magical uncle finds that her real bond is with her contemporary boyfriend. In “Black Ice,” a husband and his ex-wife recall some of their spectacular car smash-ups, symbolic of their smashed-up marriage. Throughout, Chase’s lyrical voice focuses on the terror and the beauty in everyday reality. In luminous prose she pinpoints the inexplicable longings, the joys, and the failures in the lives of ordinary people (Library Journal).
Joan Chase has two children, Christopher and Melissa. She is still writing today.