Not your typical coming-of-age story. There are plenty of writers who show the suffering of children at the hands of adults, and some who can make poetry of neglect and abuse (Dorothy Allison. Charles Dickens.) And even some who refuse to valorize children and their illusions, despite the monstrous self-regard of the adult characters or the wishfulness of the books’ readers (Christina Stead comes immediately to mind). But I think that this book shows, more powerfully than any other book I’ve yet read, how alike and entrapped children and adults are in their desperation for escape. Coming of age, in this book and in many others, signifies the accession of privileges, pleasures, freedoms, and the ability to turn one’s back on the family. But if this is so, then the child’s dream of freedom–often the best thing she has–uncomfortably mirrors that of her neglectful parents, who flee both the families that made them and the families they’d made. (Four years later, I can suggest Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows as a comparable book.)
Powell’s choice to distance herself as author from the character based on herself and to maintain a more-or-less detached third-person narrative frees the book from solipsism and sentimentality; it grants her the power to observe everybody with the same unsparing eye. **spoiler** So when Marcia, at the age of thirteen, is kicked out of the house by her stepmother and hops a train to Cleveland, forced to abandon her beloved younger sister, there is no more powerful image of escape or comfort available to her than that of her feckless father, who jaunted all over the Midwest and brought boxes of stale candy back to his ragged, unschooled, uncared for children–who devotedly believed in him as a man of brilliance and adventure looking out for their best interests, because the alternatives to belief were too painful, and pointless, besides. Marcia’s hopefulness remains intact for all this–that is the very nature of hope–and Powell leaves it to us to wonder who are the people who truly manage to come of age, and how, and at what cost.
Read: September 2010