A masterful blend of history and fiction, The Glass Madonna, by Donna Meredith, provides a window into one woman’s hard-scrabble journey from abuse and neglect to independence and self-reliance. Sarah Stevens comes of age during the ’70s: a time of liberation and sexual freedom for women. But old ways persist and she is caught up in a centuries-old, double-standard roundabout.
The novel opens in West Virginia, summer of 1963, with a brief glimpse into the world of eleven-year-old Sarah. A poignant scene between Sarah and her beloved aunt Livvie introduces the reader to an heirloom glass Madonna figurine and hints at its tangled history. The first mention of the line of Heimbach glassmakers—Sarah’s matriarchal German lineage—initiates a fascinating historic thread, one woven seamlessly throughout the story. The glass figurine becomes the embodiment of female purity and goodness—an unattainable perfection, one that haunts Sarah throughout her twenties.
When college starts, an innocent Sarah mixes into a tumultuous time filled with free love, free speech, and the controversial Vietnam War. Her boyfriend Cal—a handsome young man she has loved off and on since childhood—gives up his draft determent, and Sarah yields her virginity to him. But Cal leaves without a backward glance, and she is left with the oppressive guilt of “being damaged goods.”
A chance meeting brings Roy Glen Hardman into Sarah’s life. A silent, often-brooding man, Roy Glen draws her in. Though she notices a few fleeting glimpses into basic flaws in his character, Sarah forges on. When the two join during a campout, Sarah admits that she isn’t a virgin, igniting Roy Glen’s jealousy and disrespect. After she becomes pregnant, the two wed and move into a cramped trailer on his family’s land, effectively isolating her from family and friends. As a new wife, then mother, Sarah struggles to live up to her husband’s expectations.
Though she continues with her education, Sarah’s life grows steadily more bleak. Roy Glen stays out late with his drinking buddies and uses Sarah for housekeeping, cooking, and hurried sex without intimacy. The only bright spot is her daughter Mandy, a child she instantly loves with unselfish and protective devotion. Locked in their roles, Sarah and Roy Glen drift steadily apart; neither really knows the other, with little skill to reach past the void between male and female. To balance the storyline, the author often interjects Roy Glen’s perspective: his thoughts on family, sex, and the oppressive task of being the sole provider for his family.
When Sarah gains her college degree, a new segment of her life unfolds. She is hired to teach and moves into her profession. The independence she gains from making her own money and finally feeling a sense of accomplishment outside of motherhood brings new challenges at home. Roy Glen resents his wife’s achievements. Instead of offering support, he continues to belittle Sarah and tries more and more to isolate her from her family. His drinking and abusive behavior escalate. Gradually, a sense of rebellion grows in Sarah. When she finds proof of Roy Glen’s infidelity and drug abuse, she takes the final brave step and leaves with Mandy and a few possessions: “Roy Glen hadn’t left her any choice but to play the game his way. When she was elbowed on the basketball court, she’d learned to elbow back. She remembered how.”
Initially, her family balks at the impending separation. Divorce is a public shame, frowned upon by the close-knit community and the church. Always her ally, Aunt Livvie is the first to support her decision. As the facts become clear, Sarah’s mother, father, and brother rally behind her. The growing solidarity and Sarah’s fight for freedom bring longtime family skeletons from storage: her father’s alcoholism and his physical abuse of Sarah’s brother Garrett, her mother’s insular obesity, and finally, the old Heimbach secrets hidden deep in the legend behind the glass Madonna.
Close to death, Aunt Livvie reveals the Heimbach family story to Sarah, then gives her the cherished glass Madonna. The parallels between Sarah’s strong women ancestors—a second storyline provided in historical snippets throughout the novel—seem to mirror the struggles Sarah currently faces.
As the divorce proceeds, Roy Glen threatens to ruin Sarah’s reputation in the community. Sarah, aided by her mother and longtime neighbor Rita, gains enough information on Roy Glen’s illegal drug activities to turn over to authorities. She faces airing the sordid details of her failed marriage in court with a rediscovered courage. Backed into a cage of his own making, Roy Glen makes one last desperate stand and abducts Mandy to an old cabin, deep on his family’s property. When the child succumbs to a life-threatening asthma attack, his paternal love wins out and he relinquishes control to save his daughter.
The lines between good and bad, guilt and honor, often blur. Sarah gains a new level of maturity, seeing her life from a different perspective: Other people have motivations for their behavior. Forgiveness is possible. Even the bad times are dusted with good memories. Families are imperfect, but important on the most basic levels. A mother’s love extends beyond limitations. True love appears in the most unexpected places.
Flowing like an underground river connecting three generations of glassmakers, Donna Meredith’s novel The Glass Madonna transports the reader to an earlier time, yet reverberates with themes still current to today’s issues of abuse, healing, and renewal.
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