“Mourning Dove,” by Claire Fullerton

Claire Fullerton

Reviewed by Johnnie Bernhard

The first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina states, “Happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” For an author to successfully pen a family saga, she must dig deep into the human psyche, creating a plot beyond simplistic cause-and-effect or peopled with clichéd heroes and villains.

Claire Fullerton pulls it off. Her portrayal of a sister and brother, Millie and Finley Crossan, is unforgettable because of their distinct personalities as they come to terms with their father’s tragic fate.

Tragedy marks their childhood and defines who they become as adults.

Mourning Dove is written in the clear, distinct voice of Millie, the youngest child and the observer.

Millie is loyal to her father and brother and often confused by the emotional unavailability of her mother, Posey, who is the quintessential Southern aristocrat: born into privilege and maintaining it at all costs in 1970s Memphis. Decorum is everything to her. It’s why she marries the Colonel, who bullies her and her children. Emotionally and romantically, the union doesn’t make sense, but it is socially advantageous for both parties and thus considered a perfect match.

Fullerton allows us to like Posey: We witness the toil of her impossible balancing act that involves championing the “fallen” in her social circle, maintaining her marriage to the Colonel, and keeping Finley and Millie in her peripheral view.

For vulnerable Millie, the on-and-off-again parenting of her mother is confusing, causing Millie to keep her grief and grieving for her father to herself. Her personal decisions are marred by this suppression, resulting in relationships that are not emotionally fulfilling or restorative.

For the charismatic Finley, a powder keg is lit. When a child with intelligence and sensitivity is reared in an emotionally unstable household marred by tragedy, he may direct his intelligence toward destructive habits and pursuits. Finley does so with an intensity bordering on mania, turning to music, women, and drugs to escape his despair. He becomes a religious leader in a cult. When God cannot provide the answers Finley is searching for, however, he becomes his own god.

Fullerton alleviates the melancholy of the plot with the comical cat-and-mouse game unknowingly played upon the Colonel by the formidable housekeeper, Rosa Mae Jones, who serves as the “chorus” in this drama, openly voicing her opinion about what is wrong with the family and how it should be corrected.

Fullerton’s sense of place, moreover, is evidenced in her depiction of bars in Memphis and Charlottesville, where sweat and smoke combine with the pulsating energy of youth and live music.

Mourning Dove is much more than genre-driven Southern fiction. It is the voice of a generation, directly speaking to the children of the Seventies who were raised by parents who did not discuss “bad things.” These children were left with the burden of keeping family secrets – a burden damaging in its wake and generational in its magnitude. That burden is Millie’s and Finley’s.

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  1. Judith Ingram says

    A Californian born and raised, I know little about Southern culture and nuance. However, I learned to trust Claire Fullerton’s artistry and authoritative voice about the Irish from her charming and well-researched book, Dancing to an Irish Reel. I have every confidence that Fullerton will lead me on another thoughtful and entertaining tour, this time of Southern sensibilities, in her newest novel, Mourning Dove.

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