Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Like many Southern novels, Sewing Holes explores a somewhat dysfunctional family facing challenges and loss. Yet Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s refreshing approach to this material results in a novel more heartwarming than tragic, more uplifting than gloomy.
Narrator Tupelo Honey Lee is known by her middle name—for obvious reasons. Set in 1975 in Jacksonville, Florida, the prologue reveals a fifteen-year-old girl full of angst:
The day I tried to fix Mama started out like all the other days since Daddy died. In the morning I had a mother who was broke, but by nightfall I’d made things so much worse, she wouldn’t even look at me.
Right away, we empathize with Honey, whose father has died and whose mother is so broken by the loss that Honey must assume the role of caretaker.
The use of a retrospective narrator allows deeper perceptions to filter into scenes than Honey’s youth would otherwise permit. Bookended by the prologue and epilogue, the five main parts of the novel span seven years, with the epilogue leaping far into Honey’s adult life.
In the first chapter, the novel backtracks to 1970, to a happier day when Honey’s father is crafting a cast net from clear fishing line. He informs Honey that he is gathering holes from an empty mop bucket and stitching them together. Though at first Honey doesn’t quite catch on to what he is making, his playful pretense of classifying some holes as “keepers” and others as “rotten” is contagious. Honey pretends to throw away a bad hole into the backyard and her daddy is “so disgusted” with one he flushes it down the john. A small piece of perfection, this scene captures a father bonding with his child through play—and illustrates the magic of love and joy he creates from nothing more than air. The story would be worth reading for this touching scene alone, but the pages hold many more gems to mine.
Offering a distinct contrast, Honey’s relationship with her mother causes her considerable grief. Most of the time she isn’t sure her mother even likes her. Her mother insists on keeping a safe, spotless home. If anything disrupts her carefully ordered world “the monster hiding inside” screams, yells, and hits. The novel, however, doesn’t linger long on scenes depicting the mother’s rage. Honey does her best to prevent anything or anybody from upsetting her mother; despite these efforts, her parents argue frequently because of too little money and her mother’s irrational jealousy of other women.
Jealousy strains the sibling relationships too; Honey never believes her mother loves her the way she loves her older brother Jimmy. When the family takes in the beautiful and seemingly perfect cousin Suzy, jealousy stirs in Honey again.
Another character who influences Honey’s life is her enemy Kat—who insists they play together but frequently bullies Honey and beats her up. After Jimmy teaches Honey to defend herself, the girls become real friends.
Grandparents also star in the storyline, especially Maw Maw, the other woman who marries Honey’s Paw Paw, “a mean bastard” who had been “raised by a long line of mean bastards.” Rumors circulate through town that he might have murdered his first wife. Surprisingly, it is Maw Maw who provides Honey with the right advice when it is needed: “And life will knock you down. But if you get up again, if you don’t quit, you haven’t failed.”
When Honey has to sew a “memory apron” in home ec class, she must evaluate and come to terms with her life. The apron serves a literary purpose as well, stitching together the disparate parts of the story. Reflecting on family memories, Honey realizes all parents make mistakes with their children, but “time dulls the pain of those mistakes, if we let it, and leaves the bonds intact.”
The closing chapters brim with lovely moments of growth, forgiveness, and reconciliation. As you turn the last pages, you won’t feel as if you wallowed in the muck of people’s lives; instead, you’ll feel as if you had an intimate conversation with a collection of very real, very human characters. They just might remind you of the folks who live next door—or maybe even your own relatives. Yes, they have a few warts, but don’t we all? Love, Kuhn shows us, allows us to overlook more than a few flaws.
Kuhn was born and raised in Jacksonville. She holds a bachelors degree in English and writing from Rollins College and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction/Poetry from Spalding University. By day, she works as President/COO at Brad Kuhn & Associates, LLC.
Her work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and online. She has been a repeat winner of the Mt. Dora Festival of Art and Literature, Cultural Liaison for the Society of American Travel Writers Institute, and the eponymous “Scribbler” of the Scribbles lit-newsletter. She was the Kerouac Project writer in residence and has worked in the sports department of the Orlando Sentinel.
Her first book, Red Wax Rose, a poetry and short story collection, was published by Shady Lane Press. Scribbles published her second, Three Houses, a collection of love poems with collaborator Brad Kuhn.
Sewing Holes, her debut novel, was published by Twisted Road Publications.