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When Mary Karr began the mid-'90s memoir craze with The Liars' Club, she introduced us to a scrappy, funny kid with a fierce intelligence, a ruthless curiosity, and an indelible stripe of defiance. In Cherry, that kid -- still called Pokey by her father -- is older and wilder, inching closer and closer to trouble with every paragraph.
The book opens with Mary's farewell to her father as she prepares to leave for L.A. as a teenager with little more than a hundred dollars, a newfound taste for drugs, and a single-minded determination to leave the dusty town of Leechfield, Texas where she grew up. While her mother pages through an art book in the kitchen and disinterestedly encourages her to go, her father offers her breakfast, then forbids her to leave: "You need to stay right here at forty-nine-oh-one Garfield. California's ass."
This moment distills Karr's childhood and adolescence nicely, describing the benign inattention of her mother that shaped her independence and her father's tenderness and befuddlement in the face of it. Karr's defiance is coupled, even as a child, with a stubborn refusal of all pity, but Karr's talent is such that we see young Mary's charm and vulnerability through her toughness. Cherry chronicles many such moments, from Mary's defiant topless bicycle ride through the neighborhood to her near-expulsion from high school for failing to wear the proper undergarments.
In fact, Mary's school years are a rich lode of both pathos and humor. When she's hauled to the principal's office (in just one of many visits) for questioning the need to study algebra, he tells her sternly, "I assure you. Without math, you'll wind up being no more than a common prostitute." Mary knows, however, that she wants to be a poet, and no amount of math will stop her. In high school, she finally meets someone smarter than she is, as enraptured by literature and as stifled by Leechfield as she is. Karr's descriptions of this friendship are richly satisfying, since we've been hoping from the beginning of Cherry for Mary to find a companion worthy of her gritty tenderness.
By the end of Cherry, we know Mary's headed for trouble in some way, and everyone else seems to know it, too -- even her mother, who blithely encourages her to experiment sexually and charms a judge out of punishing Mary for drug possession. But for Karr, the choice between trouble in the big wide world and trouble at home in Leechfield seems an obvious one. Like her parents, by the end of Cherry we're both rooting for her as she slams the screen door behind her and wishing she'd never leave.