Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: 'Family' by Micol Ostow

Several years ago I went to a performance of MacBeth at my alma mater, an all-women's college. The cast was composed entirely of women. As the director noted in the program, this was a deliberate choice, harking back to the Celtic matriarchal tradition, in which women used storytelling to pass on the culture's morals and values.

I imagine Family by Micol Ostow being read by a chorus of women for just such a purpose.

If you're younger than me, you may have read a book called Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, in school. It's a novel in episodic verse, a series of linked poems that tell the story of a teenager named Billie Joe living through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Family is written in a similar style.

Like Billie Joe, the 17-year-old narrator of Family is a young woman. Her name is Mel. Mel is one of those tragic young adult characters, the likes of which inspired Meghan Cox Gurdon to write her controversial Wall Street Journal essay "Darkness Too Visible." Mel lives with her mother and her mother's boyfriend, whom Mel calls Uncle Jack. "Uncle" Jack is an alcoholic who sexually abuses Mel. Mel's mother knows about the abuse and does nothing. In Mel's mind, her mother offers her up as a sacrifice.

Mel decides to run away from home. Now the historical context becomes important: the book is set in the late 1960s, the era of free love, hippies, beautiful people and Haight-Ashbury. With the vague sense that she'll be able to survive there, Mel heads for San Francisco. Instead of a utopia, she finds a park bench, where Mel sits down and is overcome with inertia. She doesn't have a clue what to do or how to take care of herself.

Along comes Henry. Henry is loosely based on Charles Manson, and as Mel as drawn into his inner circle there is a terrible sense of foreboding. Younger readers may not be aware of the historical events on which the book is based, but will probably not find them terribly shocking compared to crimes that routinely play on the evening news. Still, readers young and not-so-much, those familiar with the Manson Family and those just learning of the crimes, must wonder the same thing: what causes a seemingly "normal" young woman to participate in something like that? This is precisely the territory Ostow's poetry explores.

It's all very well done. The reader is aware of Mel's "brokeness," as Mel frequently calls it. She often refers to being full of empty, hollow places, places inside her she longs to fill, fears to have filled. She always feels as if she's drowning, treading water, caught in the undertow. Henry offers her a lifeline, though Mel soon comes to realize that not even Henry can hold back the tide. Henry, who at first seems so godlike, has his own broken, hollow, empty and drowning places, places that will have terrible consequences for an innocent couple.

The subject matter is chilling. Yet the ending, remarkably, is a hopeful one. It's enough to keep the reader from drowning in the book's darkness, enough to keep Mel from descending into utter despair. There is a spark at the end that makes this narrative-in-verse seem redemptive, a cautionary tale, a morality play that makes it ideal to be read as poetry traditionally was, by a chorus in front of a large audience.

Family is told in the first person, entirely from Mel's point of view. It seems like a tale told collectively because of the historical aspect, the sense that Mel speaks for an important time and place in American culture. It seems like a collective tale because of the way the "family" absorbs Mel and makes her part of it. It seems like a collective tale because there are at least two versions of Mel, including one who seems trapped in a mirror, helpless. I'm sure it will be absolutely stunning to hear as an audiobook, even without a chorus of women's voices.

Still, read the print version first. Micol Ostow's writing style includes short words and phrases set apart from the rest of the text by italics and braces. Some of the words that appear set apart like this are

white noise

In my head, the words that are set apart, sometimes complementing and other times contradicting Mel's narrative, sound like they're coming from a radio, not quite tuned to the right frequency. I imagine them as the words of mirror-Mel, the other, left-behind self who struggles to break through to Henry's Mel, but can't.

All in all, it's a remarkable achievement for Micol Ostow, one that's sure to be much talked about and debated among fans of young adults books, parents, librarians and book bloggers.


JJ said...

Sounds terrific! I'm sure I will recall many of the images. Thanks for the tip.

Erin O'Riordan said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, JJ.