Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

30107561Fiction – print. Ecco, 2017. 336 pgs. Borrowed from a friend.

Eighteen-year-old Isabelle Poole graduates from high school with perfect grades and a baby on the way. Her job as a pig roaster at the local BBQ joint doesn’t pay enough for her to raise the baby on her own, and the father of her baby — her high school art teacher — has checked himself into a mental hospital. Yet Izzy is determined to keep her baby — so determined that she’s willing to join “The Infinite Family Project” headed by Dr. Preston Grind and funded by an eccentric Tennessean businesswoman.

The goal of the project is to prove that cooperatively raising children in a single home provides the best start in life. Izzy and the other nine couples are to raise the babies for ten years without distinguishing which child is biologically their own and, in return, the program will provide them with job training, parenting classes, and free room and board.

The bond between parent and child proves to be too strong, though, and other parents in the program begin to struggle with the need to be with their — and only their — child. And as the ten individual families begin to morph into one big family, the lines between couples and families begin to fracture in ways the Dr. Grind and his small group of doctoral students did not expect.

When a friend asked me if I wanted to borrow this book from her, she announced that the book is good, but weird. “Like really, really weird”. At the time, I figured she was referring to the premise, which sounded bizarre but intriguing enough that I left the coffee shop with the book tucked under my arm.

Having finished the book (and, later confirming with her), it is clear that she meant to say the plot structure are the “really, really weird” parts of the book. The first third follows a more traditional narrative structure with the reader being introduced to Izzy, learning of her emotional and financial dilemmas around her baby, and watching her decide whether or not to pursue a spot in Dr. Grind’s story.

Soon after she gives birth and is whisked away to the Infinite Family compound, the novel switches into bi-yearly updates as to how the project is going. Wilson drops the reader into the most important scene for that year’s drama — a mother deciding she needs to see her baby more, a couple deciding to wife swap — for two chapters, and then proceeds to do the same for the next year. After a number of years, the novel switches back to the more traditional structure with Izzy facing a decision about how she wants to move on with her son now that the project is over.

The benefit to this structure is Wilson can cover more time in a shorter number of pages. He drills right down into the heart of the problem for each year exposing the fatal flaws in the overall project and showing how Izzy matures from an indecisive eighteen-year-old to a much more confident young woman. The downside to this structure — and, ultimately, why the novel didn’t work for me — is Wilson denies readers the opportunity to get to know the other characters.

Everyone else — the other parents, the grad students, Dr. Grind — become caricatures rather than fully fleshed out individuals. The other eighteen parents were indistinguishable from the next and, if Izzy claimed one was her best friend and the other was rude, I had to take her word for it rather than seeing for myself.  I cared for Izzy because the earlier third of the novel helped me see why I should, but the middle third did not lend the same courtesy to the other parents and their children and there was little motivation to keep reading as things between Izzy and the other parents came to a head.

Frankly, Wilson’s examination of fringe parenting methods and their impact on the human psyche provided the scaffolding for a weirdly intriguing novel. Sadly, this scaffolding crumbled thanks to the underdevelopment of supporting characters and the cramming of an ambitious scope into a 336-paged book.

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Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2003. Originally published 1993. Print. 354 pgs. Purchased.

Three years after the events of The Bean Trees, young Turtle and her adoptive mother Taylor (formerly known as Marietta) are on their way home from visiting the Hoover Dam when Turtle announces she saw someone go over the ledge of the dam. A little girl of few words, it takes Taylor some time to pull all the necessary information from Turtle. But she believes her daughter is telling the truth and bullies the crew at the dam into sending a rescue team down to retrieve the mentally challenged man who fell.

The miraculous story offers Turtle her fifteen minutes of fame as the tale is picked up by the local news stations and then by Oprah, who invites Taylor and Turtle out to Chicago to appear on her show. Turtle’s national appearance catches the eye a Cherokee lawyer named Annawake Fourkiller, who takes one look at Turtle and immediately knows the child is Cherokee. Furthermore, Annawake  immediately knows the finalization of Turtle’s adoption (as covered in The Bean Trees) was a fraud.

The young lawyer works with Child Services for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and cannot believe the Nation would have approved the adoption of a Cherokee child by a white woman, which is required under the Indian Child Welfare Act. Concerned Turtle was essentially stolen from her family, Annawake flies to Tuscan and confronts Taylor about the adoption.

When my book club met back in November to discuss the prequel to this novel, I explained how I had a hard time suspending disbelief about Turtle’s adoption because of my familiarity with the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One of the members mentioned to me that the sequel dealt with this particular issue, although she wasn’t too happy with the way it was resolved. I won’t spoil the ending here, but I will say my inkling that convenient family history would step in to save the day turned out to largely be true.

That said, I enjoyed this book far more than I enjoyed its prequel. The actions of the characters in this novel were far more believable than in the previous book. I spoke about my uncertainty that I would immediately take in an abused child at this particular age when I shared my thoughts about The Bean Trees, but you can bet that after three years of raising said child I, too, would flee Arizona for the Pacific Northwest if I thought my child would be taken from me.

I can also believe the reaction of Taylor’s mom — the desire to fly to Las Vegas to help, the determination to go to Oklahoma and smooth things over with Nation. And while Annawake’s personal investment in Turtle’s adoption might have felt a little heavy-handed at times, I know her story is not the exception to the rule and appreciated the emotion it brought to why the Indian Child Welfare Act is such an important piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, one the best aspects of the prequel was missing from this book. Lou Ann and the family she and Taylor forge together have largely scattered to the winds. Taylor and Turtle live with Taylor’s sort-of boyfriend, Jax, on the outskirts of Tucson, and all of Lou Ann’s concern for their plight is funneled through a game of telephone with Jax.

Instead, Taylor and Turtle’s support network has shifted back to the mother she left behind in Kentucky and the boyfriend Taylor isn’t interested in marrying. (Her mother insists this is because Taylor’s grandmother raised her to feel like she didn’t need a man and her mother did the same to Taylor.) It morphs again in Las Vegas when they met a young woman determined to recreate herself as Barbie (yes, the plastic doll!) and then again when Taylor’s mother travels to Oklahoma to reconnect with a cousin named Sugar, who just so happens to be a member of the Cherokee Nation. And the network Turtle ends up with in the end feels much weaker than the one she had in The Bean Trees despite Kingsolver’s assertion that the Cherokee Nation values the tribe and family more than non-Native Americans do.

That said, this is the fourth Kingsolver book I have read and I can confidently say that she is now one of my favorite authors. I love her writing style, particular the way she manages to sweep me away with her descriptions without writing long and rambling sentences, and the unique characters she develops. I own two more of her novels, and now I’m torn between rushing ahead to read them or saving them for when I need to read something I know will be good.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction – print. Harper, 1998. Originally published 1988. 272 pgs. Library copy.

Twenty-three year old Marietta buys a used car and sets her sights west leaving behind her small town in Kentucky and the single mother who raised her. Rechristening herself as Taylor Greer, Marietta has no plan as to where she’s headed or what she plans to do for money. All she knows is that a young woman in the 1980s named Taylor wouldn’t allow herself to be tied down to a man who doesn’t love her and children she doesn’t want in a small town right out of the 1950s.

Yet Taylor doesn’t entirely manage to escape this fate as she reaches the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma late one night and ends up leaving tribal lands with a bruised, non-communicative child in her care. Turtle – so named because she grabbed anything put in front of her with a death grip – and Taylor wind up in Arizona where they are first taken in by the owner of the “Jesus Is Lord” auto body shop, Maddie, after Taylor’s car dies and she is unable to pay for repairs. Early chapters introduce the reader to Lou Ann and her newborn son, Dwayne Ray, before (obviously) converging together as Taylor and Turtle end up moving in with Lou Ann and forging a unique family structure that explores both motherhood and female friendship.

To truly enjoy this book, you have to suspend disbelief (or common sense, as one woman in my book club put it) and accept that a twenty-three year old, unmarried woman who prided herself all through high school on not getting pregnant would accept a Native American child from a complete stranger in the middle of Oklahoma and continue onward with her journey to Tuscan, Arizona. My book club was pretty evenly split on this book – four loved it, four hated it, and four thought it as just okay – and it seemed to boil down to whether or not you could accept this premise.

I, myself, went back and forth on whether or not I could believe this. Taylor and I are a year apart in age, and I know that my first reaction when someone handed me a baby would be to head straight to the nearest police station. Would I end up advocating for the child? Oh, definitely. But I would not keep driving across state lines and risk criminal prosecution for kidnapping and/or child abuse simply because someone handed me a child and told me I had to take it with me.

Of course, Taylor’s acceptance of this child into her life reflects her ability to react without consideration for the future. I am a planner; Taylor is an actor. Someone hands her a child? Taylor keeps it without second thought. A boss says she must pay to dry clean her uniform? Taylor quits without thinking about how she’ll pay for rent or food for her and her new daughter, Turtle. A friend needs help smuggling people across the border? Taylor agrees to drive them to Oklahoma without considering what getting caught would mean for her and Turtle.

When I was able to accept this about Taylor’s personality and suspend disbelief, I ended up being charmed by the mysterious behavior of Turtle and the story of how she slowly breaks out of her shell (pun intended). I also particularly enjoyed watching Taylor and Lou Ann – a fellow Kentuckian who is abandoned in Arizona by her husband during her eighth month of pregnancy – forged together a hodgepodge family consisting of themselves, their children, and their neighbors so that both of these women and Turtle, especially, can thrive. Over the years of living far away from my family, I’ve really come to value having a network of friends who love and support each other as a family would, and I was particularly touched by Kingsolver’s depiction of how Taylor and Turtle’s network evolved over time.

Having read two of Kingsolver’s later books, it was obvious that this was a first novel. Some of the harsher critics in my book club said the writing as flat and “blander than vanilla”, but I was able to imagine both the Kentucky and the Arizona settings despite having never traveled to either state. The “Jesus Is Lord” auto repair shop was especially vivid in my mind. I do think the writing lacked an emotional impact, and I could set the book aside without hesitation when my train arrived or bedtime loomed.

However, I think the lack of emotional range was a reflection of Taylor’s personality rather than a deficit in Kingsolver’s writing.  And while I remember having a much more visceral reaction to events of her more well-known novel, The Poisonwood Bible,  this book is the only one I want to read a sequel to. So, clearly, something about this story resonated with me despite my struggle to suspend disbelief with the basic premise.

Pro by Katha Pollitt

When I was fourteen, I told a classmate that I was pro-choice as we worked on a group project for our English class at her house. She and, most especially, her older brother began taunting me, calling me a “baby killer”, and saying I was going to hell. I was so shaken and so upset that I asked her mother, who gave me a hug yet said nothing to her children, if I could use their phone to call my mom to come get it. That was my first experience with the vitriol judgment surrounding reproductive rights but, unfortunately, not the last, and in the interim years I have seen the debate continue with emotionally charged rhetoric on one side and quite a bit of silence on the other.

Pollitt’s book contributes a strong voice to shatter the silence, specifically addressing those in the middle who believe abortion should be legal but rare but often vote in line with or support policies meant to further restrict access. Such “middle of the road” people may not want to outright ban abortion, but they are often engaged in a discussion of who “deserves” to have an abortion imaging that no one they know has had one despite the fact that three in ten women have had an abortion.

She addresses such images – a “welfare queen”, a “slut” who uses abortion like birth control rather than facing the consequences of sex outside of marriage, a survivor of rape or incest – and the traumatic, judgmental language used to push either the anti-abortion or the pro-choice agenda.

(Like Pollitt, I refuse to use the term “pro-life” because it attributes a state that a fetus cannot exist in outside the womb before twenty-four weeks, which is well after 99 percent of all abortions are performed. In my personal experience, those who are “pro-life” are also pro-death penalty and anti-universal healthcare, which are incompatible positions to me.)

In this particular section, Pollitt comes down hard on both sides arguing that both the pro and anti-camps cling to imagery that is not an accurate picture of who actually has abortions in the United States – women who already have at least one child. It appeals to the emotional side of the debate rather than allowing people to rationally discuss the issue.

My favorite portion of her argument is when she addresses the anti-abortion camp’s contradictory rejection of both abortion and birth control measures. The Pill, condoms, and other contraception measures are proven as the best way to prevent pregnancy and, therefore, reduce the number of women seeking an abortion. Emergency contraception such as Plan B has been scientifically proven to prevent ovulation not implantation, which is necessary for a pregnancy to occur. Yet anti-abortion leaders are often also anti-birth control – the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case to support their position despite how scientifically unsound it is – demonstrating “what they really object to is sex without a significant threat of pregnancy and the social changes connected to that”.

Pollitt also devotes some time to reframing the ideal of motherhood. Not every woman wants to become a mother nor should they be forced to carry a fetus to term and surrender their infant for adoption. (Pollitt cites Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, which I highly recommend.) She argues that the elevation of motherhood as the sole aspiration for women works hand in hand with the elevation of the fetus’ rights over the pregnant woman as it erases women as an entity with rights. And it feeds right back into the anti-abortion argument because any woman who does not want to become a mother must be amoral and atypical. Never mind the fact that the average woman will spend thirty years of her life regulating her fertility on a monthly basis – yes, even those who choose to become mothers.

So, yes, I enjoying reading this book and would encourage others to read it. She points out the grey areas of both sides in the argument providing the clear, factual words needed to engage in a debate without resorting to such charges as the one I experienced at fourteen.

Book Mentioned:

  • Pollitt, Katha. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. New York: Picador, 2014. Print. 272 pgs. ISBN: 9780312620547. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Picador. Retrieved: November 12, 2014.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer hides behind her gothic persona refusing to grow close to anyone at her newest foster home other than her boyfriend and counting down the days until she can age out of foster care. Molly is sentenced to fifty hours of community service after she is caught stealing a tattered copy of Jane Eyre from the public library and, thanks to her boyfriend’s interference, spends the time helping a 91-year-old woman named Vivian Daly sort through her belongings.

Over these fifty hours, Molly learns that Vivian was orphaned at a young age after arriving in New York City from Ireland and placed on a train to the American Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society. Her first name changing at every new home, Vivian is utilized as unpaid labor by her new family, who deny her food and an education, before being relinquished to another family who cannot care or afford their numerous children.

This novel garnished a lot of praise on my Facebook feed and I had it added to my to-read list long before it was chosen as the November read for my book club. Unfortunately, while Kline’s premise holds a lot of promise, the execution with its predictable plot and stereotypical characters left much to be desired.

Admittedly, I am inexcusably ignorant about Native American history beyond what is covered in my high school textbooks or presented at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but I am at least familiar with the statues governing the placement of Native American children in foster care or for adoption. Molly’s father is a Penobscot Indian; she lived on the Penobscot Indian reservation with her mother even after her parents separated. Therefore, Molly is a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a federally recognized tribe, and falls under the statue of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

As such, Molly must be placed with, in order of preference, (a) a member of her extended family; (b) a foster home approved or specified by her tribe; (c) an Indian foster home approved by an authorized non-Indian licensing authority; or (d) an institution for children operated by an Indian organization. She very likely would not be placed with Dina , whom Kline presents in a stereotypical fashion as a greedy and uninterested foster mother, and, at the very least, would have someone from her tribe helping her to maintain a connection with her community in addition to her state-mandated caseworker. Thus, the feelings of separation that so helped Molly bond with Vivian occurred solely to advance the plot, and I could not help but be suspicious of her research.

The little research I have done on orphan trains does align with what Kline presented as Vivian’s experience. There were people who selected orphans solely because they wanted farmhands and, for the most part, I thought the chapters on Vivian’s experience were the most interesting and compelling aspects of this novel. However, the ending is neatly wrapped up into a bow through a series of implausible events – mainly, the reunion of two characters whose names were changed multiple times in an age without the internet – only to be shattered by Vivian acting contrary to her previous characterization.

Maybe if the book had been longer I could have garnished a better understanding of Vivian, or maybe the ending would not have felt so abrupt. But this is the story Kline decides to give her readers, and I turned the final page hoping someone else decides to tackle this overlooked aspect of American history.

Book Mentioned:

  • Kline, Christina Baker. Orphan Train. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print. 294 pgs. ISBN: 9780061950728. Source: Library.
Book Cover © William Morrow. Retrieved: November 12, 2014.