Dark but Engaging Debut by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Published 2015

Read 2/14/2017

This book is the subject of a book discussion group to which I belong.  If it wasn’t I might not have finished it but, as is the case with most books that are the subject of book groups in which  I enjoy membership, the book was worth pursuing to the end.

The book starts with the rape of a 14 year old local track star, Lindsay, an attractive, but not ravishingly beautiful, nice neighborhood girl who attracts the attention of many boys in the neighborhood and school.  This lets us know immediately that this book won’t be a breezy read.  As expected, the event profoundly impacts her, her family members, and their family relationships.  But we only experience these impacts through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, a boy neighbor who is 13 years old at the time of the event and in the full throes of a crush—on Lindsay.  Our narrator is initially a suspect but his ignorance of what “rape” means and involves is so clear that he is quickly dismissed as a suspect.  The reader’s opinion of his innocence is tested, however, as he reveals the kinds of feelings he has for Lindsay and the things he does to observe her.  The crush is better termed an obsession and his innocence is thwarted through associations with a neighbor who is the adopted son of a family who has fostered many children.  The narrator obtains, from this neighbor boy, a disturbing photo of Lindsay taken by the boy’s adopted father, and thus brings another person into the list of potential rapists. We’re given hints that that this family’s fostering involved likely horrendously damaging hurt inflicted on the children by at least the foster father, with minimally the knowledge of the foster mother.  The author also spends a number of pages discussing the Jeffry Dahlmer serial killing case that occurred during the time of the story.  Thus the book has a Law and Order SVU type plot serving as an overarching plotline for the book and ventures well into other types of horrors that humans can inflict on one another and on children.  This is the source of my discomfort with this book.  Despite being a fan of law/order procedurals, I don’t appreciate the SVU version or stories involving serial killers.

Fortunately, the book dramatically departs from Law and Order SVU-type offering on several accounts.  First, the crime remains publically unsolved, although the narrator may have discovered implicating evidence that isn’t shared, and no one gets resolution or closure as a result. This is perhaps not satisfying for the reader, but the impact of lack of resolution on the narrator both personally and as a result of its impact on those around him, including Lindsay, is more interesting.   Second, a central focus of the book is the life and development of the narrator.  We learn about the rhythms of life in the suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood pre-rape as see through the eyes of the narrator, including the games the neighborhood kids (including Lindsay) played and the lushness of the wooded area in which their neighborhood was set.  We learn about the breakup of the narrator’s parents’ marriage and the further damage inflicted on the family by the death of the narrator’s sister.  We see the narrator grow in his understanding of the impact of the rape on Lindsay through their late night phone calls and we see the evolution of the narrator’s obsession with Lindsay.

The third aspect that separates this book from a typical SVU story is the homage the author pays to his hometown of Baton Rouge.  He spends a fair number of pages on the differences between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and works to fill in the gap of most readers’ knowledge about Baton Rouge.  In particular he works to fully convince the readers that Baton Rouge should not feel guilty that it isn’t like New Orleans.

An interesting question is whether the narrator really ever understands the impact of the rape on Lindsay—both the physical rape itself and the revelation to her schoolmates that she had been raped.  Since the rape occurred during the summer and since it was so quietly investigated, the kids at school were unaware of the event until it’s revealed by the narrator in the school yard.  The revelation is not intended to be hurtful and neither Lindsay nor the school kids are supported by adults at the school in how to work through how to digest this information.  Perhaps this would be different in 2017 or at least one can hope it would be.  The narrator does get a small glimpse of the depth of despair to which Lindsay has fallen and remains several years after the event when she states she sometimes wishes she were dead and the narrator recognizes that she means it.  Of course he is not equipped to help her nor is he inclined to think he might aid her in getting some help.  Only when he is in his thirties and runs into her at a football game does he seem to begin to truly understand the long-term effect this event and corresponding exposure of it has had on Lindsay.

M.O. Walsh has told interviewers that he feels he “got lucky with this one” that his book received exposure and recognition in the face of a vast number of other books published in the same year.  Kirkus Reviews concludes its review of the book with “Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.”

I do look forward to future offerings from the author although I also hope he doesn’t feel compelled to follow a trend I’m seeing in recent literature and which he used here—to use deeply evil acts as a device to explore human nature.


An Interesting Taste of India

The Inheritance of Loss (published 2006) By Kiran Desai

Read Dec 1, 2016

Desai’s lush writing reveals the stories of her characters and the political unrest that infiltrates them in the Darjeling district of West Bengal in 1986 in carefully designed aliquots.  Sai is the daughter of parents estranged from their families.  She is raised in a British convent until their death when she is left at the doorstep of her grandfather, a retired judge.  We meet her at age 17 as she is enjoying first love with her local math/physics tutor, Gyan, who becomes partially radicalized by the Gorka National Liberation Front.   The judge was trained in Britain and served as a travelling Chief Justice for the Indian Civil Service.  We meet him while he is leading a solitary life “with the solace of being a foreigner in his own country, for this time he would not learn the language” in a decaying mansion built by a Scotsman in the hills with a view of the Himalayas.  Prior to Sai’s arrival, his only interactions after taking residence in this house are with his native cook and his beloved Mutt.  The cook’s son, Biju, is an important character as we learn about his immigration to the US, his miserable existence in New York City as an illegal alien, and his strong connection to his father.  Rounding out the character list are the closest neighbors of the judge and Sai—a pair of Anglophile sisters and a household made up of a Swiss priest and “Uncle Potty” who is generally drunk.

Desai starts us with the intrusion of the judge’s home by young men and boys, local members of the GNLF, to steal his guns and other possessions of possible worth.  She proceeds to unwind the story of the various characters and their various relationships to this intrusion.

She exposes us to the challenges of being a foreigner—whether actual (Biju), chosen (the judge, the sisters, Father Booty and Uncle Potty), or accidental (Sai).  We are exposed to the impact of prejudice against minority members of society and lower caste members in Indian society and the extreme strategies they apply to break into a better life.  We get a taste about the complexity of India—a single country forged from nearly countless sets of cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

While not an easy book for me to initially connect with, it has turned out to be one that is hard to leave, and one that has opened a new set of things to ponder.  Can one ask for more from a book?

Hilbilly Elegy Provides Important Lessons

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

(read 12/18/2016)

“Memoir” according to Merriman:  1)  an official note or report; 2) a narrative composed from personal experience; 3) an account of something noteworthy. 

J.D. Vance provides an apology in the introduction—he has written a memoir although he is only 31 and has not accomplished anything of note, save graduating from Yale Law School.  He does indicate that is an unexpected accomplishment by someone from his communities—Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY, the town from which his grandparents migrated in the early 50’s for a better life and to which he and his family remain strongly connected.  He certainly has an interesting story to tell regarding his challenging path to this accomplishment.  He doesn’t simply give us his own story, however.  Dispersed through the narrative, he provides some reflections on the drivers of those challenges which are both specific to his case and fellow hillbillies migrating to industrial communities, but also help us understand the challenges faced by those participating in the black migration detailed in Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and those faced by all immigrants trying to make a better life than the one they left behind in a community foreign to their culture.  He provides some lessons he may or may not have intended regarding challenges faced by anyone trying to move onto and up the socioeconomic ladder and who is unfamiliar with the expectations of that new ladder.

Vance calls this an Elegy.  All of the definitions of elegy I found speak to a mournful poem of serious reflection, expressing sorrow of someone dead. 

He does a less crisp job communicating exactly what he is mourning. He appropriately includes the phrase “crisis in culture” in his title.   He does certainly lament the current state of Middletown, OH which is no longer home to Armco, the steel company that recruited so many from his grandparent’s Kentucky community, nor to its high paying jobs.  Unemployment is high, drug use is rampant, and many of those who could move away already have.  He notes, almost sadly, that although there are jobs that remain there, some of which are fairly decent paying ones that also feature health care and other benefits, these jobs go unfilled by local residents for lack of interest.  He laments the current state of his family’s neighborhood in Jackson, Kentucky, which is now sufficiently run-down and unsafe that his cousin doesn’t feel he can keep the grandmother’s house if it will be vacant for any period of time. He laments the assumptions he heard and hears in his community that those who “make it” are just really smart—that raw talent alone, not hard work is the cause.   He laments that his community seems to have lost their will to earn a living and their ability to recognize the inconsistencies they live by, in particular, the importance of taking responsibility but then never actually doing it.   He laments that his community has deep distrust of traditional media while eagerly believes unsubstantiated “news”.  He notes, however, that they retain a huge love for country.

His book qualifies as a serious reflection, not in fully academically scholarly way, but definitely in a way that can engage a broad readership and convey some useful research by others that he describes. Topics of others’ research that he cites, and has clearly digested personally, include challenges faced by participants of the black migration and the biological and psychological impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

He notes that Armco (like other “rust-belt” companies) recruited heavily in specific areas, instigating migration of many families from a single county to Middletown in the case of Armco.  While this preserved aspects of the overall culture of the area they left, many young families, like his grandparents, were away from their parents and extended families.  Since his grandparents were only 14 and 17 when they migrated, that isolation from older family members and friends meant they did not get the usual (although sometimes unappreciated) oversight and guidance about becoming an adult and a parent.  His own mother and self-father moved from Middletown at one point to be away from the guidance her parents were giving, although it would have been useful to listen to it.  Like blacks immigrating from the rural south, these immigrants brought aspects of their rural culture (such as raising chickens and having extended families share a single dwelling for extended periods of time) to an area that didn’t appreciate or would tolerate them so separation between immigrant and local cultures became more distinct and the immigrants increasingly isolated from the rest of the community.

Vance learned that subjection to Adverse Childhood Experiences (such as abusive language, being pushed/shoved/having things thrown at you, separated or divorced parents, living with an alcoholic or drug user, etc) has significant impact on children and can influence brain development.  This can lead to a situation where the part of the brain that deals with stress is always activated and the child/person is always in a ready state for self-defense or flight.  Vance notes that both he and his sister have fortunately married people with low ACE indices who are helping Vance and his sister move away from this tenacity and associated behaviors.

Vance discusses a situation not specific to Middletown or the Hillbilly culture but that this country and others have and are facing.  His grandfather and others working at Armco counseled their children and grandchildren to “do better than they did” and to seek white color jobs that used their head vs their body.  It’s natural to want better for your children.  However, these grandparents and parents were ill-equipped or incapable of promoting a home environment that stressed what is needed to be able to successfully pursue this path.  Coupling this issue with general distrust of the outside community, and fueling it, according to Vance, by conservative political heads indicating “this is all the government’s fault” provide at least some drivers for the current employment state of Middletown type communities.

Vance sprinkles learnings about what saved him and could save others throughout the narrative including:  a quiet house promotes studying and learning; a stable home life (same place and adults) for several years enables developing long-lasting friendships; parental/adults in the home having high expectations for success in school matters; working a job helps you learn about the world and clarifies what you want; getting outside your own community to see other ways of being and thinking about life opens your eyes to new possibilities;  networking is critical; mentoring makes a difference—you have to learn about things, how they work, what is expected, etc; you have to learn how to get ahead.   Although his grandparents weren’t great parents when raising their kids, they matured into grandparents that provided a stable home life for Vance during his later high school years, a situation he hadn’t had previously.  This enabled him to concentrate on studying, get placed in an advance math track where he made friends with high achieving students, and learn some fundamental work ethics.  He knew he wasn’t’ ready to go to college immediately upon graduation from high school, so he joined the Marines.  He credits them for teaching him how to be an adult.  He finished a degree at Ohio State University in two years by overloading credit hours and going through the summer and then followed advice/encouragement to apply to Yale University.  There he met his future wife who is a terrific stabilizing influence and he has the good fortune to get excellent mentorship from a professor who also used some social capital to help him get beyond a poor interview.

Vance does not provide a prescription for solving the crisis of his home communities.  He suggests the solution needs to come, in large part, from people switching from an approach of avoiding uncomfortable truths by avoiding them or pretending better truths exist to a more honest one that accepts responsibility for them.  His one request to government is to more willingly utilize family members to care for children that need to be separated from parents rather than sending them into a foster care situation with strangers.

His comments about feeling somewhat sad about having moved out of his “home culture” as he’s made a better life for himself resonated with me.  He only provides a small hint regarding the losses that accompany assimilation and/or economic achievement. That wasn’t his intended topic but it’s an open one for exploration.

Vance provides a useful look at a community and culture little known or understood by others and helps improve that understanding.  The understanding that is possible, however, is not specific to that culture alone but is applicable to the more general situation of a foreign culture moving into a community with the intent of making a better life.

On the Road with Ivan Doig


Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan DoigPublished 2015; Read Jan 5, 2017

The world lost Ivan Doig in 2015 to multiple myoloma.  Fortunately he left behind 15 novels and several non-fiction books that will continue to provide us good literature to read and ponder.   In the Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig starts this story in Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a setting for his previous work, and in fact the location is the Double W ranch owned by Wendell Williamson, nephew of Wesley Williamson who we met in Doig’s Prairie Nocturne.  The story takes us on a trip east to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and then back to the west, all via Greyhound bus or its feeder lines.

We accompany Donal Cameron on these adventures that take place in the summer of 1951.  They are initiated when Donal’s grandmother, a cook at the Double W ranch, needs an operation for “female trouble”. (He’s been living with her since his parents died in a car accident. ) Gram sends him to her sister, Aunt Kate, who lives in Manitowac, WI with her husband Herman.  We enjoy Donal’s adventures on the Greyhound bus and his willingness and ability to spontaneously manufacture stories about himself, his family, and his travel plans.  His cross-country travel to Wisconsin takes about the first third of the book.

Once arrived at the last station of his trip, we meet Aunt Kate, who turns out not to be who Donal assumes she is (Kate Smith) and eventually turns out not to be who we, and perhaps Manitowac, assume she is.  His stay with Aunt Kate and “Herman the German” is an interesting strain for Aunt Kate and Donal while  Donal and Herman the German strike up a nice companionship. Eventually  Aunt Kate decides she can’t handle Donal anymore and she sends him back to Montana.  What she didn’t anticipate was that Herman would go with him, showing up in the seat next to Donal shortly before departure.

For the last third of the book we learn more about Herman and Kate as we follow their travels, but we mostly enjoy watching the relationship between Donal and Herman grow and the ways they manage through a number of interesting obstacles.  They’ve decided there isn’t a real need to take a straight line trip back to Two Medicine Country of Montana so they take a meandering course across the west.   Herman has been a major fan of Karl May, a German author specializing in western novels.  He has an interesting viewpoint of the American West and a desire t to see “the Karl May territory of Indian knights and pistoleer cowboys”.   Donal decides Herman must experience Crow Fair, here a fictionalized version of a real annual event and similar to an event Doig attended with his parents in the 1950’s.

Sprinkled throughout the book are the contributions Donal is getting in his autograph book from the various characters he meets during his travels.  Along with the signature, most contributors offer a rhyme or other catchy phrase that may include useful advice which sometimes comes via the interesting vernacular of the writer.  Donal even catches an entry from  Jack Kerouac, the encounter fictionalized of course, but with some of Kerouac’s actual, acknowledged, words.  Doig also uses a quote from Keroac to open the book.

Doig eventually ties together some plot lines and finds a way to get his pair of characters out of the very hot water they find themselves as a series of mishaps toss them into stormy seas of the Great Plains.  Donal must make a very significant decision at the end and tells us “I heard my decision the same instant the two of them did.”

Doig took the initial plot line from his own history—-he was sent to live with an aunt when his ranch-hand father was recovering from surgery and his ranch-cook

grandmother was going to the hospital to address “female problems”.  But he indicates that his aunt and uncle were nothing like the characters he invents for us and Doig’s bus ride was completely unmemorable.  He demonstrates that while his stories may be set in the west, he’s not a “western writer”.  He gives us unforgettable characters and stories of how they deal with trying times and issues and does it with language we wish he could continue writing.

Processed with VSCO with b3 preset
Processed with VSCO with b3 preset