Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You. She explores this basic question: “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.
“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”
A sample of the author’s words about parenting:
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.
I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO
This is easily the most powerful book I’ve read in a long time. The author chose an omniscient point of view–God’s eye view—and begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
The suspense comes in finding out just how the teenage Lydia Lee died. Every member of this family has a theory and each has left things unsaid for years. Their unvoiced everyday desires and concerns resonated with me. I’ll offer Celeste Ng’s own words to give you a taste of this haunting novel.
“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mothers’ and fathers’ mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”
“At the time, Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway? Still, every year, she gave Lydia another diary. Now she thinks of all those crossed out phone numbers, that long list of girls who said they barely knew Lydia at all. Of boys from school. Of strange men who might lurch out of the shadows. With on finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. When she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.”
“Little bumps pocked the page all over, as if it had been out in the rain, and Lydia stroked them like Braille with her fingertip. She did not understand what they were until a tear splashed against the page. When she wiped it away, a tiny goose bump remained. Another formed, then another. Her mother must have cried over this page, too.”
“And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within. Years passed. …Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
I’ve just begun reading Ng’s well-reviewed next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.
My younger brother and I often laugh at the fact that we were indeed raised in a barn. Or what used to be a chicken shed at the edge of an orange grove and next to the railroad tracks. No brag. Just fact.
You see, in the late 1940s, my grandparents purchased the remnants of the Valencia Dale Ranch on East North Street in Anaheim, California. The ranch included a few orange trees, a rundown farmhouse, and a large, albeit even more rundown chicken shed. My Irish grandmother always noted, even when viewing the most derelict and dilapidated of buildings, “Well, it’s got possibilities.” And she was stubborn enough to set about proving her point.
When I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Corps Reserves for the little extra monthly income it provided. Little did he know that a few months later, war would break out in Korea. He was called up to serve for a year, until the regulars arrived. In preparation for that year of separation, my mom and I moved into a recently finished little room beside the barn, just across the driveway from my grandparents’ farmhouse.
A year later, when my dad came home, my grandparents offered my parents what they could–that barn. And over the next decade, that sad shed became a warm and cozy home for me and my little brother, born nine months after Daddy’s return.
Both my parents and grandparents exhibited resourcefulness and inventiveness, converting what they had into what they wanted.
So, no. I don’t consider being raised in a barn an insult.
Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth.
The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.
“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”
“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”
Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.
“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”
Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.
Those were the “good old days.”
What difference did reliable birth control make?
“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”
Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.
But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.
Three cheers for Carson City, Nevada author, Teri Case on her debut novel! I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from a friend.
Teri gets deep and personal in this family drama set in a trailer park very similar to the one in which she and her siblings were raised. The voices of the mother, father, sister, and brother are both vibrant and heartbreaking. Each character demonstrates the damage that poverty, abuse, and addiction can wreak on human beings. To protect themselves, they inflict further damage by keeping secrets from one another. While readers may not like the characters, they will find it hard not to empathize.
“Do you ever think we all would just be happier if everyone worked together and supported each other? I feel like my parents…and my older siblings only take care of themselves. It’s like my family doesn’t think there is enough of a good thing to go around, so they all scrap for the best of the worst, climb over each other, fight over rations, and then boom…they vanish when someone needs them. And that leaves me no better than them and looking out for myself…”
The author successfully paints each character into a corner, where neither they nor the reader can see any way out. Could these characters ever find redemption? Each of them will need to find resilience and the fierce drive of a tiger if they are to survive much less succeed.
More importantly, I believe Tiger Drive reinforces one of the reasons I read–to experience lives outside my own. The characters’ desperate lives and blistering responses to the chaos swirling around them are so foreign to my own life, that I was at first taken aback. Their struggles caused me to reflect on the assumptions and judgments I may have made when I encountered troubled children and families not only in my teaching career, but also in my life. I hope I have at least been kind. As a human being, kindness and compassion should be my first response. My prime directive. It costs us nothing to “make room for hope, faith, and opportunity” in our hearts. Having one person believe in us can make all the difference.
Thanks for a compelling read and the lesson, Teri.