Dianne Romain is a writer, philosopher, and social commentator whose prize-winning novel, The Trumpet Lesson is a story about long-held secrets occasioned by societal attitudes toward teenage pregnancy, race, adoption, and homosexuality. A powerful journey in search of personal integrity that invites reflection in each and every one of us.
Dianne’s debut novel, set in the 90s with flashbacks into the 60s, explores these themes through the story of Callie Quinn, an American whose journey of self-discovery starts with a music lesson in Guanajuato. Her own journey began in “a rural Missouri town. My father drove a bulldozer. My mother kept his books. To a family of nine and of modest means, a trip meant visiting our mother’s sister in a nearby town.”
When Diane first imagined living abroad in high school, she read Henry James. She was in her 20s and after learning he had lived abroad. She imagined that, like him, she would write abroad too. She would do both, live and write abroad, and more. She would study philosophy and obtain her PhD in theory of knowledge. She would become fascinated with the realm of human ideas and emotions. And, all the while, she would find her voice in the art of fiction.
“I noticed that analytic philosophers tended to write about emotions as if they had never had one. On the other hand, emotions came to life in Proust’s, Remembrance of Things Past. I decided to take a fiction writing class.”
Her first book, however, would be a textbook entitled, Thinking Things Through. The novel would come later, years later, sparked by a sabbatical in Mexico. Shaken after imagining a woman who had remained silent for decades about having relinquished a baby, Dianne instantly knew this was a story she had to write. “I began shaking, imagining the feelings of that woman. I knew then that hers was a story I had to write. The woman became Callie Quinn of The Trumpet Lesson.”
Dianne poured herself into the project. She dug into her own experiences to put herself in her protagonist’s shoes. Like Callie, I went to high school in the early 1960s in a rural Missouri town. Interracial marriage was illegal. Black and white youth rarely socialized, much less dated. Teen sex, in any case, was considered shameful. There was no sex education. No counseling on sexual intimacy or contraception. And abortion, of course, was unmentionable.
Dianne said that at one point during her junior year, she thought she was pregnant. Her boyfriend’s parents suggested they give the baby up for adoption. Her father expected the boy to marry her. She was confused and didn’t know what to think. Fortunately, her period started a few days later.
Her character, Callie, has a different fate: she does fall pregnant, and—at her parent’s bidding—gives the child up for adoption. Her story is told without judgement and with deep empathy. Dianne’s voice calls every reader to wonder what he or she would have done, if they had been Callie: “If I imagine myself in a situation similar to Callie’s, given the racism of the time and her father’s self-absorption, I imagine I too would have relinquished my baby.”
But let’s go back a step or two. Would I, as at teen, have fallen in love at first sight with someone like Noah (Callie’s African-American teenage love interest)? Would I have gone alone with him to a professor’s house? Would I have made love with him without precaution and without reflecting on the possible trouble we could get into? Would I now recommend such thoughtless sexual activity?”
These questions only give rise to more. Every person’s answer is different. Dianne’s story, in any case, is not about seeking one, but about daring the questions. About reflecting on what it means to be human, to be oneself, and on the universality of human feelings: “I resonate so with Callie’s loss because of how sad and helpless I felt at certain difficult points of my life.”
Loss, grief, family, belonging, sexuality… Dianne’s themes cross divides of race, religion, economics, and time, to unite people with the commonality of their experiences as humans. Her characters face tough choices between their principles and those, often at extreme odds, of their societies and desires. There is no absolute right or wrong, good or bad, in The Trumpet Lesson, but very human characters in very human circumstances.
“To evaluate decisions, we need to look at the goals and values underlying them, and we need to know as much as possible about the contexts of these decisions.”
Some might be inclined to criticize Callie for her lack of integrity: failing to practice the candor she preaches and misleading her friends and family. Dianne would ask us to think about the difficulty of acting with integrity, given Callie’s circumstances.But The Trumpet Lesson does not merely invite the reader to have compassion for Callie’s predicament, it also offers hope for every person seeking to recover personal integrity.
The novel contains so many other lessons, on empathy, tolerance, and of course, the power of music. Dianne grew up with it, singing and playing several instruments. For her novel, she added the trumpet to that list. It was while studying it that she heard a phrase she later uses: “Sound is a gift of the breath.”
Music has the power to heal. In the story,”when anxious, Callie holds her breath and her words. To speak her heart she must learn to breathe.” By breathing, Callie learns to play, calm her anxiety, and in a cathartic burst express emotions she had lost for years. In Dianne’s novel, music plays a key role in Callie’s acceptance, recovery, and true knowledge of herself. This is a brilliant, transformative read. A journey well worth going on.Note: Dianne’s universal, humanizing message transcends her book with her decision to donate its royalties to Mujeres Aliadas, a women’s health nonprofit in Mexico that provides sex education to teenagers, and to the Laurie Frink Career Grant for young brass players.