The Blue Girl–Laurie Foos

Laurie Foos writes surreal novels.  At least that is what literary critics say.  I have read two of her novels–this one and her debut, Ex Utero, and I can say that both left my head spinning.

While Ex Utero was wickedly funny, The Blue Girl is drenched with sadness.  I was not surprised to read that Foos wrote the novel in the wake of losing her father and mother.  Those are huge losses that make most people question everything.

The blue girl is a rumor among the summer people (and locals) in an unnamed lake town.  Her skin is blue and becomes more blue as the tale progresses, but Foos never tells us exactly what sort of blue.  We are left to insert our interpretations.

Three middle-aged friends struggle as their relationships with their husbands change and they recognize their own dissatisfaction.  Their oldest children are teenagers, a time that is challenging for nearly all parents and that can cause parents to question the job they have done and whether they should ever have become parents.  Irene’s husband has suffered a nervous breakdown and spends nights playing Nerf basketball in the living room and fears the television will explode if turned on.  Libby’s husband stays at work until the early morning hours and, although the big box store he works at does not stay open that long, Libby does not question him.  Their oldest son suffers from fragile x syndrome, attends a special school, and has to be locked in his room at night.  Magda’s life seems the most normal, but she grieves for her dead mother and converses with her as she ponders her children, her son full of hormones and not very bright and her daughter smart, but with her mother’s thick waist.

Each of them resents the summer people for different reasons.  Magda was a summer person who became trapped in the town through the excitement of hormones and scantily-clad bathing suited bodies.  The moms and children visit the lake after the summer people have left for the season, but it is only Audrey, Irene’s teenage daughter, who has wits enough to dive in and give CPR to a girl who is drowning–the blue girl.  From that moment everything does not change, but it accelerates.  Audrey can no longer sleep.  Neither can her younger brother, Buck, who asks over and over to hear the story of how she saved the blue girl and who dreams of her every night.  Audrey cannot escape how wonderful and complete she felt as she closed her lips over those of the blue girls, but her inability to sleep leaves her scattered and thin.  Greg cannot stop cursing the “fucking blue girl.”

The mothers bake moon pies and, after everyone else is asleep, drive out to the blue girl’s house, seek admission from the old woman she lives with, and one by one enter her room and feed her the moon pies into which they whispered their secrets.  They leave lighter than they left and convinced they  have done a good deed.

But as Audrey becomes thinner and Caroline’s grades begin to slip and Greg and Rebecca begin sneaking out together and Magda becomes concerned that her son will be trapped the same way she was, the trips to the blue girl become less satisfying and the children begin asking too many questions.  The mothers stop asking questions they should be asking and when Libby’s and Irene’s sons turn up missing one night, everyone goes together to find the blue girl and the secrets are released.

I read through this book feverishly.  I wanted to know what the blue girl was and whether or not she was real.  Why was Irene’s husband mentally ill?  Why did Libby’s husband stop coming home and why was Magda’s husband so unaware of his family’s turmoil?  I wish I could say Foos answered these questions, but she did not.  These are the questions she leaves us with and perhaps the questions to which there is no real answer.  What causes a person to snap?  Why do marriages fall apart?  And is the marriage in which the husband does not come home until the early morning more apart than the one in which the husband is present, but disconnected from everyone’s emotions?

What a lovely idea that there is somewhere a repository that is waiting to receive our griefs, our miseries, our shames.  But what happens to that repository when it is filled, as it must eventually be?  I don’t know if I would recommend Foos to most of my friends, but I will keep her books on my shelf, which is something I do with few books the older I become.  Maybe someday they will give me the answers I missed the first time.

Finished 10/25/15

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A Long Walk to Water–Linda Sue Park

Many years ago I heard a Lost Boy speak at our local community college.  I cannot remember his name, but this man’s message was in my mind as I read A Long Walk to Water, a fictionalized account of the experiences of Salva Dut, a young Dinka who fled his village along with his classmates in the midst of an armed attack that was part of the Sudanese civil war.  Salva left behind his family and fled to Ethiopia.  Eventually war would send Salva and 1500 other boys and young men in flight again in hope of safety in Kenya.  Eventually, Salva came to the United States, Rochester, New York.

Linda Sue Park interweaves the story of Salva’s journey with the story of Nya, a young Nuer girl, who spends her days walking back and forth to fetch water for her family.  The Nuer people have a long history of fighting and tension with the Dinka.  Nya’s family and tribe migrate each year when the waters in their village disappear.  This year is different, however, as Nya’s younger sister has become ill due to a waterborne parasite and is unlikely to survive the muddy waters that the Nuer survive on when they are forced to leave their village.  When a strange man comes to the village and promises that he and his men can find water in the ground, Nya is skeptical.  Park allows us to watch the progress of the well digging through Nya’s eyes and to see the impact it will have on the village as construction on a school begins because, as Nya’s father says, the children will no longer have to spend their days fetching water.  Even girls, Nya asks, incredulous.  Yes, her father replies, even girls.  The possibilities for the village seem boundless.

Park brings the two narratives together when Nya explores the rumor that the man digging the well is Dinka.  Why, she wonders, would a Dinka help the Nuer?  This child’s question strikes the heart of anyone outside of this cultural struggle.  Why wouldn’t a Dinka help the Nuer?  When Nya introduces herself to the man, she learns his name, Salva Dut.

Salva found his father in a hospital through a cousin and, after navigating the bureaucracy of several governments, managed to reunite, but was unable to return to this village due to the ongoing civil war.  His father told him reluctantly that return was impossible because the soldiers would force him to join the fighting.  Salva returned to Rochester, New York saddened and wanting to help his people.  He settled on the key role of water.  He would raise money to dig wells for the villages to liberate the people from the labors and the competition required to stay alive.

The novel is short and the switch from Salva’s to Nya’s story can help young readers who may need a break from the intensity of Salva’s story.

My eight-year-old daughter and I partner read this novel.  Below is her guest post review.

Salva’s father told him his mom and one brother were safe at home. His sisters were safe, too, but his oldest brother Ariik died so did the youngest brother Koul. On Nya’s side my mom forgot to tell you the girls did not have to fetch water because of the well and that  her dad was building a school! Girls could go, too!

I loved this story because Salva grew up to help people and girls got to go to school.

Finished 10/24/15

Orphan Train–Christina Baker Kline

I know loads of readers have blogged about this book.  I heard about it on a public radio show on a late Saturday afternoon and was intrigued.  I had watched a documentary on the orphan trains and read some articles, so a novelized version for young adults seemed like a great idea.

The old woman whose attic young delinquent Molly is supposed to clean, Vivian, is a vibrant character.  We hear most about her, both in the present and, through flashback chapters, in her childhood coming from Ireland to New York and then, via the orphan train, to Minnesota.  I loved this story line.  Molly’s character, not really an orphan, with a dead father and a troubled mother, seems a little too easy.  In and out of various foster homes where she is never really loved and often mistreated, Molly provides a modern reaction to the situation in which Vivian found herself.  I was struck by how much worse Vivian’s situation was, and yet how much more positive she remained.  Does Baker Kline want us to see foster care as worst than the orphan trains?  Equivalent?  That we shudder at the story of the orphan trains, but are satisfied with the flaws of foster care?

Baker Kline goes one step too far in making Molly part Native American, which gives her yet another strike in our society.  I was not sure why just being a child badly treated by the foster system was not enough and ended up wondering if it was a way to check off another box for potential school reading.

This book has been very popular with reading groups, particularly mother-daughter reading groups.  I would love to see it made into a movie.  Christopher Monger is tasked with adapting it for the screen and Broad Green have optioned it for the big screen.

Finished 10/15

The Daughters–Adrienne Celt

Stories can inspire, create, and heal, but, as The Daughters demonstrates, they can also be destructive.  Lulu’s mother is a jazz singer and her grandmother, Ada, works long hours for Nordstrom’s as a seamstress and then pours herself into making Lulu into a world-class singer.  This is a novel of mothers and daughters in which fathers are absent or not-fathers.  Lulu has recently given birth to, been literally split wide open by, a daughter resulting from a night of passion while on the road for a singing gig.  She has no idea who her own father is, nor her grandfather or great grandfather.  Both her mother and grandmother refuse to name them and Lulu is torn by whether or not to name, to own, her own daughter’s father and  possibly break the curse but risk losing her husband.

The curse comes from a story woven by her grandmother, Ada, to explain the great love affair between her mother, Greta, and her husband in Poland, which produced three lovely sons and a string of stillborn or miscarried daughters until Greta makes a deal with the devil (according to Ada) or sleeps with a local factor man (according to Lulu’s mother).  When war hits Poland, Greta and her husband and Ada’s biological father pool all of their resources to send Ada (newly pregnant by a man she will not name) to a cousin in Chicago, to safety.

Once in Chicago, Ada tries to discover the fate of her family, but to no avail.  To cope with her loss, she weaves glorious stories of their genesis and her mother’s and brothers’ powers (even of the father who raised her).  These stories reinforce the importance of mothers and the bond with their daughters and Ada repeats these stories every day to young Lulu, whose mother becomes more and more distant before finally leaving Lulu altogether.  Lulu struggles to combine the powerful love of the stories with her own abandonment by her mother and, as Ada wishes, pours herself into music.

Lulu’s husband, John, is also a wonderful story teller, but, like Ada, he neglects to tell Lulu when a story is a story and not a beautiful reality.  The masking power of stories breaks when Ada falls dead as Lulu gives birth and Lulu is left to make meaning of it all.

This is one of those novels  that is so beautifully told in the middle that finding a proper ending is difficult and in this, her first novel, Celt does not quite pull it off.  The novel ends before the last page and does not end because those of us who were also taken in by Ada’s stories, and by Lulu’s, are left abruptly in the harsh unsatisfying light of reality.  Maybe that was her intent.

Finished 10/17/2015