The prophet Ezekiel said: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. ” (18:19-20) But what about the sins of the mother? That, I found to be the unifying question in three new novels, published May, June, and July of this year: Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani, and The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown. In each book, the mother, by ignorance or neglect, allows her child to cause or be the victim of terrible harm.
None of these mothers are evil. Elizabeth Atwell, mother of Thea in Yonalossee Riding Camp, believes she and her husband have created a kind of Eden in central Florida of the early 1930s. Insulated by their huge estate and their wealth from orange groves, twins Thea and Sam grow up happy and independent in their separate interests—for Thea, it’s riding horses, for Sam, natural history. Their only other playmate is their cousin Georgie. Similarly, in Golden Boy, Karen Walker, mother of Max and Daniel and wife of Steve, feels that she is part of a golden couple, that Max, her older son, is a golden boy, handsome, popular, athletic, kind hearted. Like Elizabeth, Karen allows only her best friend, her husband, and their son Hunter into their close-knit world. In fact, Max and Hunter, raised together since infancy, call each other cousin.
The illusion of perfection is more fractured in Wayward Girls. Clare’s husband gives her everything money can buy–expensive perfume, dresses, and lobster dinners, but he is not vividly present in the story. Dressed in a gray suit, driving a big car, like all the other husbands in this bedroom community, he is so anonymous he lacks a first name. Although the beautiful Clare (compared to Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls) loves her daughter Sadie, she leaves Sadie unsupervised and instead spends her time either as an actress in the local theatre or, increasingly in her bedroom with pills and liquor. Sadie has her own kind of theatre, acting out elaborate fantasies with her friend Betty and mooning over handsome Ray Filley. All three mothers, then, assume isolation will protect their family or else, as in the case of Clare, passively accept isolation.
Even Eden couldn’t keep out the snake, though. And for these children (teens or pre-teens), the temptation is sex. Left to her own devices, Sadie (in Wayward Girls) and Betty become complicit in the disappearance of another girl, Francie, an annoying neighbor whom they tease with forged love notes from a made-up boy. Thea (Yonahlossee), along with Sam, grew up sleeping with her cousin Georgie, but as a teenager, she finds sleeping with Georgie has a whole other meaning, and her sexual awakening has terrible consequences that expel her from home to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp in North Carolina. Her mother won’t speak to her, her brother won’t write, her father is oh-so-polite as he drives her out of Eden in the family roadster.
Max’s snake also takes the form of sexual awakening, but different, so different. You see, Max is intersex, the new term for hermaphrodite. This is a secret Karen has kept close. After Max was born, she was so certain that she had done something wrong, that she briefly abandoned the family. Later, when his doctors suggested Max take male hormones, she stopped them once he began acting aggressive, like a typical teenage boy. No, Karen likes her boy sweet, and somehow she’s convinced herself that Max’s “problem” isn’t a problem as long as no one knows about it. Of course, Max’s “cousin” Hunter knows. And one night when the adults are downstairs getting drunk, Hunter rapes Max.
Each of these novels moves along with the force of a juggernaut. Yonahlossee and Wayward Girls are written in chapters or sections alternating between the past and the present and show dramatically how history repeats itself. As Thea begins life over in North Carolina, she recalls what has happened to land her so far from home. No doubt her mother thought a riding camp for girls was the perfect place to keep Thea out of trouble, but her mother thought wrong. By the end of the book, as you discover the terrible harm Thea has caused, you watch her cause terrible harm again. Juxtaposing the past and present is more complicated in Wayward Girls, set in 1979 and 2002. Clare’s story seems destined to become Sadie’s: both women sink into depression from miscarriages, and just as Clare neglects Sadie in 1979, Sadie neglects her two children in 2002. The handsome local boy Ray Filley, all grown up, follows Sadie around, sometimes mistakenly calling her Clare. And the woods near the village continue to lure young girls, then swallow them up. Brown does a terrific job juggling these plot lines and bringing her two time periods to a satisfying close.
Instead of time periods, Golden Boy cuts back and forth among multiple narrators: Max, the golden boy, his parents, his brother, his girl friend, and his doctor. The plot is compelling enough: an intersex boy raped by his best friend from childhood, but by using multiple narrators, the author adds layer after layer of complexity, sympathy, and dramatic irony as we readers become privy to secrets withheld from those who need to know them. In the end, I’d say this technique made me admire Golden Boy the most because it rounded its characters and avoided the filter that a single point of view would have created.
If you’ve been gnashing your teeth throughout this review, feeling that I’ve unfairly targeted mothers, let me respond. Writing about three books limited how many topics I could cover, but in each book it is the mother who is the decision maker when it comes to child rearing. Two of the fathers are virtually absent (Yonahlossee, 1930, and Wayward Girls, 1979). In the 2002 story track of Wayward Girls, however, the father becomes increasingly involved in child care. Ironically, the father in Golden Boy ends up switching places with the mother by the end of the book. She becomes the bread winner, and he gives up his quest for a seat in Parliament to stay home with the boys.
I enjoy comparing and contrasting novels. I find it helps me see details I would have missed otherwise. What about you? Can you think of other examples to share?