Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Take a wounded woman with a good heart and addiction problems. A troubled child who needs love. A dog in need of a home. And a man who has known since childhood the name of the woman he wants to marry. Throw them into the same story, mix thoroughly, and you have a surefire recipe for cathartic tears.
Karen White’s A Long Time Gone leaves readers in that most pleasant teary-eyed state that only a very good book can induce. The novel earns this power over our emotions because the struggles and relationships remind us of our own mistakes and failings, our own loves and losses.
This family saga’s heart beats in this line: “The love between a mother and her child was an unbreakable bond.” Though the bonds in this story seem irreparably fractured, they are not. White skillfully weaves the tales of four generations of women repeating the mistakes of their mothers, despite their determination to turn out differently.
After a miscarriage and an imploding marriage, Vivien flees the West coast, returning to the only other place she knows: her hometown of Indian Mound, Mississippi. (You know, that Robert Frost line: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”) She arrives to discover the coroner visiting the family farm because a storm has unearthed a skeleton. And the coroner is none other than Tripp, the man who has loved Vivien since they were kids.
The pill-addicted Vivien has almost—but not quite—given up on herself. She believes if only she can understand why her mother, Carole Lynne, abandoned her, she may feel worthy of love and happiness. But during Vivien’s nine-year absence, Carole Lynne’s mind has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Getting answers proves all but impossible.
In fleeing from her ex-husband, Vivien has given herself one more reason to despise herself: she has perpetuated the family pattern by leaving behind Chloe, her troubled twelve-year-old stepdaughter. Then Chloe shows up on Vivien’s doorstep, with her suitcases, black clothes, and heavy eyeliner. Hiding behind a goth façade and smart mouth, the girl aches from her father’s indifference.
At the root of the family’s problems is Adelaide Walker Bodine, Vivien’s great grandmother who left her baby behind when she fled to New Orleans. Adelaide is presumed drowned in a great flood that swept through the Delta. That baby, Bootsie, grows up feeling the absence of a mother. She, in turn, abandons her own child Carole Lynne, for several years. And Carol Lynne abandoned Vivien. Twice.
As you might have guessed, the characters in this story have a lot of explaining to do to each other. A lot of forgiveness must take place before they can move forward.
The prose rings, at times, with generational truth: “She seemed to have shrunk since I’d last seen her, as if each year had demanded a piece of her in payment. Her fingers lay like brittle kindling against the sheets, her hair a steel gray bun braided at the back of her head just like she’d always worn it.” And this testament to a mother’s poignant love for her child: “I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d long for each passing phase of Bootsie’s life the way the harvested fields missed the farmer.” What mother hasn’t felt that twinge of sorrow, of regret, that it isn’t possible to hold onto the precious days of babyhood and youth a little longer?
A Long Time Gone holds mysteries that must be solved—the skeleton, the series of abandonments—but the astute reader will discern the outcomes fairly early from clues White carefully sprinkles into the chapters. The joy in reading on is to discover exactly how Vivien will manage to claim as much of a happily-ever-after ending as her circumstances will allow.
In this story, you can go home again, to the yellow farmhouse in Mississippi, where the rich soil grows not only vegetables but the unbreakable bonds of love.
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