“Everybody Here is Kin” by BettyJoyce Nash

Everybody Here is Kin (Madville Publishing 2023) by BettyJoyce Nash is a moving, well-written literary story about family—the ones we are born into and the ones we create. It is also a finely tuned tale of a tight-knit community living on a small barrier island off the coast of Georgia—a place where the year-round islanders all claim kinship. The soft pastel cover belies the sharp contrasts and conflicts within the pages of this sensitive, eloquent book, yet the gentle beauty of the cover sets the tone for something lovely and loving within the pages.

Teenaged Lucille finds herself abandoned on Boneyard Island with two younger half-siblings (five and seven) she must care for, when her mother decamps with a man. Along with the kids, Lucille has the ashes of her father, a soldier who suffered traumatic brain damage, then died during his tour of duty. Adaptable, strong, friendly, and resourceful, Lucille quickly builds some connections—which she later calls her “instant family”—on the island, but she has a long hard journey in which even nature seems to strike back.

Will is the manager of the cottages where Lucille, her half-siblings, and her mother are staying. Boneyard Island connects them. Will grew up there, Lucille’s parents married there and conceived her on the island, and many of the important characters were also born and raised and chose to stay there. Will is the balance to Lucille in many ways He is often inarticulate, offsetting her frequent loquacious bouts. Though Lucille turns fourteen at the end, for most of the novel she is only thirteen, yet she seems often more mature and well-grounded than Will—and certainly more so than her mother.

On the one hand, this is a sharp and insightful coming of age tale, but on the other hand, it is an aching, astute story of coming to terms. Lucille needs to come to terms with her mother’s irresponsibility while her mother must come to terms with her grief and excessive reliance upon various pharmaceuticals, including Xanax and Adderall. Will, a former military man, must come to terms with his “soldier’s heart,” the old-fashioned term his friend’s great-aunt uses for him. Just the mention of the word Fallujah can send Will into a PTSD fugue.

As Will’s ancestral house burned down without any insurance, he is rebuilding slowly with the aid of his friend, an ex-soldier turned sheriff. Will picks up extra cash as a sculptor who sells at an open-air market organized by his love interest, Belva. Lucille observes that “All Will’s sculptures were rickety like Will was testing the limits of wood and gravity. But Will seemed like he was the one about to break.”

The phrasing in Everybody Here is Kin is often as lyrical and lush as the island landscape which forms the setting for this story: “Insect voices hummed and chirped and croaked. That nature symphony. The tide traveled out, noisily. …” And within these lush descriptive passages, there are many ecological messages, often in the words and thoughts of Lucille, who at times sounds as if she could be Greta Thunberg’s younger sister.

There is also wisdom and poetry in this novel. In the aftermath of a hurricane, which gives the novel its dramatic climax, Lucille struggles through a storm-damage wildness on the island:

The island infiltrated my skin like a spy, its smell filling my nose and air inflating lungs; my tongue tasted leaves, moss, and pinestraw.

I was eating the forest, biting off chunks of time, if time has taste and smell. …

…I leaned over and pressed my ear to the ground.

It hummed. Was there a name for the noise of the earth?

Though there is plenty of action in this book, the heart of it lies in the relationships. Lucille is a responsible parent figure to her much younger half-brother and half-sister, protecting them, loving them, and carrying them (literally and figuratively), seeing to their needs, and reading them to sleep at night. A moving scene in which a part-indigenous youth teaches her to float in the ocean, and apparently also to laugh, shows just how much of her own childhood she’s lost in her role as surrogate parent.

Lucille sagely observes that even when their mother is there physically, she isn’t really there. Yet when her mother abandons them on the island, Lucille realizes that she’s played the parental role for years. Bravely, she insists to outsiders she can care for the kids. But she is only thirteen, a week shy of fourteen, so naturally the kind-hearted sheriff and a compassionate social worker are sniffing around the abandoned siblings. At the same time, Lucille and Will are forming their own family. Lucille and the children are opening his wounded “soldier’s heart.” He feeds them, watches out for them, plays with the younger kids, teaches them to carve wood, and takes them to a magical shell ring left thousands of years before by the indigenous people on the island.

One descendant of those indigenous people—Queen—is a seventy-something legend, a font of knowledge and wisdom, and the protector of the sea turtles and their nests. Queen educates Lucille on the precarious situation with the sea turtles and then shares their protected nest sites with Lucille, who is so moved she kneels and prays for turtles still resting in their eggs. When Queen and Lucille become stranded outside on the island during a hurricane, Queen’s island-born instincts and experiences and Lucille’s youthful energy and strength combine to give them a possible chance at survival.

Many of the main characters have a palpable craving for finding what they might consider “home.” This search for the place where they are once and truly home is a consistent and well-played theme of the book. Lucille comes to believe that Boneyard Island might be the home she might return to in much the same way the sea turtles return to lay their eggs on the same island on which they first saw life. This quest, as much emotional as literal and physical, adds a rich layer of poignancy to the story.

Author BettyJoyce Nash has crafted some unforgettable characters, all magnificently different from each other, who nonetheless form bonds of what Will finally struggles to admit is love. Nash leads readers gently inside each character’s head with fine-tuned internal musings as well as showing us their mettle through their actions. Character-driven as this story is, thankfully Nash proves to be a master at revealing the truth of each person. All in all, just a lovely, eloquent beaute of a grand book.

BettyJoyce Nash

BettyJoyce Nash’s writings have been widely published in journals, newspapers, magazines and online and she’s received several prestigious fellowships. Currently she teaches at WriterHouse, a nonprofit literary arts center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Visit her at https://www.bettyjoycenash.com/

 

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