Two Novels and a Memoir
Hearing steady rain outside, I woke this morning from a dream of stiff, yellow weeds leaning across the sidewalk to my door. How our green, mowed lawn morphed into parched, unruly growth puzzled me.
Now I’m thinking about two novels, set in different places, both stories agonizing over a mother worrying about a lost child. In Persons Unknown Susie Steiner’s Manon, a pregnant police detective in Cambridge, U.K., has moved away from London for the sake of her adopted black son, Fly. In this murder mystery things don’t go well for Fly in Cambridge, and Manon is torn between her feelings for the unborn child inside of her and for the boy she first loved as her son.
Susan Straight built her novel, Highwire Moon, in the fluid worlds of drug culture on one side and of undocumented immigrant workers on the other. Three-year-old Elvia, found in a car abandoned at a church, was put in California’s foster care system. Nine years later her American father got custody of her, determined to do what he could to care for his child. Here, my prejudice kicks in. I don’t like his bringing the girl into a place where dad and his girlfriend live from one drug high to another, where she manages to get to school one day and not another, while looking after dad’s girlfriend’s little boy. Meanwhile, Evia’s own mother, Serafina, returns on the dangerous route back to California, having been taken from the church grounds and deported by ICE to Mexico. Moving with migrant workers from orange groves to strawberry fields, she leaves messages and sacrificial prayers, desperate to find the daughter she had left in a car at a church.
Even as a childless woman, I ache with the longing of these mothers. They are characters, not a part of the facts of the world, but Manon’s guilt for becoming pregnant when her adopted son needed her most and Serafina’s arms, empty without her child and scratched as she reaches for oranges I will eat, live in real parts of my heart.
And now, I want to thank J. D. Vance for Hillbilly Elegy. As I turned the first page, something resounded inside the core of who I am. Puzzling over my deep response to his words, I read more, called my sister, Helen, and asked, “Were we hillbillies, growing up in Dallas?” Both of us set aside Mama’s family. I wondered about Daddy’s mother, born in Georgia and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Was she the source of characteristics we had felt from childhood? Helen said no, because her father was a prosperous doctor.
Turning from Grandmama, we considered her husband, the grandfather who died before we were born. His father, our great-grandfather, had moved to north Texas with his brothers. This band of brothers had moved to Missouri together and together they later settled in Texas. Helen and I found ourselves agreeing that Grandmama had married a hillbilly. We – Daddy and his siblings and my sisters and I – come from unruly, stubborn stock with passionate loyalty to family.
And so, from Mama I learned empathy for people whether or not they look or sound like me. Years after her death, Daddy said he never knew anyone as free of prejudice as Mama was. From Mother, his 2nd wife, I learned that the love of a parent grows deep in our spirit, not only from blood kinship. From Daddy, the son of a hillbilly, I learned the fierce expression of righteousness as well as joyous acceptance of life as it is – a great adventure.