Monday, October 19, 2015

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

First of all, I love the title.  Taken from the song "You are my Sunshine", this book clearly looks at how "taking someone's sunshine away" can transform not only that person but everyone around.

The story takes place in Baton Rouge in the late 1980s and early 1990's when the narrator, who is telling his story many years later, is a young teenager.  As young boys will, he worships Lindy, the girl who lives across the street to the point of stalking her.  All of this seems like an innocent crush until the day in 1989 when is raped and her parents and the police come knocking on the door and identify the narrator as one of the suspects.  Given he does not even really know what the word rape means at the time everyone loses interest in him as a suspect until his mother finds a box of the memorabilia about Lindy that he has stashed under his bed.  Though she doesn't share the information with anyone other than his father, the fact that his mother could suspect him weighs on him.

The narrator makes another bad mistake - he tells everyone at school what happened to Lindy over the summer and she stops talking to him for a year.  He spends the year changing his identity based on what he thinks she will like and thus losing many of his friends and prior interests.

The story also explores the other suspects in the crime - a 20 year old neighbour who has been up to no good since finishing high school, the adopted son of some truly creepy neighbours who doesn't seem to have any friends, and the most disturbing of all, this boy's adoptive father who is apparently a psychiatrist, but spends most of his time stalking a stray dog, taking pornographic pictures of his neighbours and abusing his wife, son and a string of foster children that come in and out of his house.

While the main storyline is this rape and the impact it has on the whole neighbourhood, the book also deals with the narrator's reaction to his parents' divorce, another tragedy that hits his family and his experimentation with girls, alcohol and drugs.  There are also some interesting asides about life in Baton Rouge (especially how the heat affects it), and the impact of Hurricane Katrina, which directly hit only New Orleans, on that community.

By the end the mystery of the rape is solved by him (though apparently not the police) and we see how his life has turned out.  We also see that Lindy eventually manages to move on though is obviously forever changed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This book was very sad in parts, but I still enjoyed the very realistic story of the lives of an indentured servant and the slaves on a Virginia tobacco plantation at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Seven year old Lavinia is orphaned aboard the ship her family travels on to escape Ireland for the United States.  Torn away from her brother, she is taken on as a servant by the captain of the ship who gives her to his illegitimate slave daughter to train.  Completely traumatized at first, Lavinia does not speak and is unable to hold down food but is slowly nursed to health by the house slaves who she eventually adopts as her Mama, Papa and siblings.  While young and naive, her relationship with the slaves is easy and familial.  But as she ages she begins to see how she must sit separately from them in Church and witnesses their abuse at the hands of a cruel manager and the captain's son.

When the captain dies, his wife who is already addicted to opium, descends into madness and is taken to Williamsburg with her sister and brother-in-law.  Because she is attached to Lavinia, she accompanies them, befriends their daughter Meg and is taught lessons, both academic and how to act as a "white lady".  All the time she pines for her black family.  At age 20 she finally returns to the plantation - but in a different capacity, as the lady of the "big house".  Her husband forces her to keep her distance from her black family, but when she is shattered by secrets about her husband, they prove their loyalty to her.  And Lavinia must decide where her loyalties lie.

I do not want to give the ending away, because this is a really well written, enjoyable book and I recommend you read it on your own.  There are some fabulous characters - particularly Mama and Papa, Belle, Meg and Lavinia herself.  For the most part the white men are not as sympathetic though Will Stephens is the exception.