BN.com Gift Guide

I Loved You All: A Novel

( 3 )

Overview

Marguerite Daigle struggles to survive in a small New York town she considers the edge of nowhere, always holding her family together by a thread. In the summer of 1977, that thread unravels when her older daughter forms a bond with a zealous but well-meaning religious right-to-lifer. A lyrical, funny, and moving portrait of family life, and of the peculiar politics of abortion rights, I Loved You All demonstrates once again that Paula Sharp is a writer of formidable abilities. ...
See more details below
Hardcover
$27.50
BN.com price
(Save 13%)$31.95 List Price
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (23) from $1.99   
  • New (3) from $18.20   
  • Used (20) from $1.99   
Sending request ...

Overview

Marguerite Daigle struggles to survive in a small New York town she considers the edge of nowhere, always holding her family together by a thread. In the summer of 1977, that thread unravels when her older daughter forms a bond with a zealous but well-meaning religious right-to-lifer. A lyrical, funny, and moving portrait of family life, and of the peculiar politics of abortion rights, I Loved You All demonstrates once again that Paula Sharp is a writer of formidable abilities.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In an interview on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," a political pollster asserted that abortion was not a first- or even a second-tier issue in this year's presidential election. Funny, because that's the impression I have about Paula Sharp's new novel, I Loved You All. The title is taken from the last few lines of Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Mother," a poem spoken to "the unborn," and abortion, as a moral issue, is central to the story. But morality, not abortion, is the operant word here. As usual, Sharp (in this, her fourth novel) takes on not just topical issues but the ethics and principles of human behavior that embrace them all.

In the small, upstate New York town of Stein in 1977, eight-year-old Penny Daigle -- precocious, curious, irreverent -- makes her way through the summer under the watchful eye of good and righteous Mahalia, her older sister, and live-in babysitter Isabel Flood, a right-to-lifer who favors ankle-length skirts and prim straw hats. Meanwhile, the enchanting, provocative, beautiful Mrs. Marguerite Daigle, a loving though neglectful, alcoholic mother, dries out at the Place, a rehab hundreds of miles away. During their mother's absence and in the time following her return, Penny and Mahalia are caught up in Isabel's crusade, attending countless church services, tagging along on daily door-to-door pro-life campaigns, and, finally, witnessing a dramatic First Amendment challenge leveled at the local high school library. Weaving in and out of the vicissitudes of that summer and the lengthy flashbacks that lead up to it are Francis Xavier, or F. X., Marguerite's once-blind brother and the children's uncle, and David, Marguerite's soon-to-be-husband. It's they who provide steadying hands to these women and girls as a battle between good and evil ensues.

The wonder of this novel -- no, of this novelist -- is her willingness to explore the murky territory on which this battle is truly fought. The means by which Sharp accomplishes this has much to do with the brilliance and complexity of her characters. Surrogate mother Isabel is admirably responsible and willing to reckon honestly with her own foibles. She is also fanatical and finally destructive -- almost as much a culprit as the violent men with whom she aligns herself. And Marguerite, because of her seemingly infinite capacity for spontaneity, creativity, and love, is the mother we all want. In fact, it is this woman's capacity not only to give but also to receive affection that sets an important standard for Penny, who observes, "[David] pulled my mother's jacket collar up higher around her neck and leaned toward her to say something. It was a gesture full of such tenderness that I almost called out to them both, in order to hurtle myself into their moment of connection...." But there are also her secrets and drinking that lead, in time, to a very real dereliction of duty.

The reinvented game of Parcheesi that Penny plays with her uncle, a game "...so full of reversals, of near losses, suddenly converted into gains, of colors shifting into and out of alliances and rivalries, that I became lost in the tangle of our moves and played on my feet, circling the board instead of sitting down in front of it," is the perfect metaphor for life in the world bounded by Ms. Flood and Mrs. Daigle. And playing on her feet is exactly how Penny navigates her way through those life-altering months. She is ever the prankster, pouring vodka in Isabel's picnic punch, turning flips on the playground at school, turning herself -- and thus the world -- upside down. Like the Braille her uncle holds in such affection, Penny's own alphabet of perception and reaction "has the beauty of rebellion and the resilience of the underground."

Sharp's book is so quotable that I'd like to set aside my own descriptions, summaries, and opinions in favor of yet another passage from her clear, evocative prose. The storytelling in I Loved You All fairly trembles with real and hard-won wisdom, much of it delivered to Penny by her uncle, for whom language is at once the origin of and the container for all knowledge as well as all deception. Here is a man, big as a house in both size and spirit, who is able to distill the language of ethics and morality into a form we can easily comprehend: "The worst things people ever do, they do because they believe they're fighting what's wrong. In that way, goodness introduces evil back into the world and the circle is complete." This book, too, is complete, full, spilling over with the things for which we turn to art: beauty, truth, unity, a mirror to show us back to ourselves with an instructive and forgiving eye.

—Susan Thames

Craig Seligman
Sharp has the born novelist's gift of breathing life into her characters. Even the minor characters seem to get up and step off the page. The addled churchwomen in Isabel's circle, in particular, are funny endearing creations. I could have done happily with more of just about everybody...I loved this book probably more than it deserves, but I can't help it - Sharp's gifts are enormous.
The New York Times Book Review, August 27, 2000
Craig Seligman
Sharp has the born novelist's gift of breathing life into her characters. I loved this book . . . Sharp's gifts are enormous. —New York Times Book Review
Stephen Amidon
. . . wonderfully inventive. —USA Today
New York Times
The leading character has the depth and energy to become indispensable to people whose lives or children are out of control.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael
This story is a book-discussion group's dream. —Seattle Times
Olivia Abel
[T]his beautifully written story, full of wry observations about human nature and the abortion debate, will resonate with all those who have ever laughed or cried at their own family's absurdities. —People
New York Times Book Review
...strangely gentle and funny...I loved this book...Sharp's gifts are enormous...
—(8/27/00)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
About midway through Sharp's fourth novel, the eight-year-old narrator, Penny Daigle, does a flip in the air for the "sheer perilous pleasure" of it. The same sensation is elicited in the reading of this exuberant and often hilarious story about growing up in bleak smalltown New York with a restless and loving family. It's 1977, and Penny Daigle, a girl of relentless energy and curiosity, and her uncertain and judgmental sister, 15-year-old Mahalia, must deal with their single mother Marguerite's alcoholism and eventual departure to "The Place," a home in Louisiana for recovering alcoholics. Marguerite's boyfriend, a parole officer at the big state prison in town, and her puckish brother, F.X., a reporter given to dazzling monologues, are going along with Marguerite to keep an eye on her, and so Mahalia and Penny are saddled with straitlaced, pro-life babysitter Isabel Flood. Without taking sides or descending into clich , Sharp (Crows over a Wheatfield) brilliantly navigates the political and religious waters that swirl around the pro-life movement as Isabel seeks to spread her message around town with Mahalia's zealous, and Penny's reluctant, help. On the way, Penny meets a carnival of characters, including Mrs. Fury, who places Penny before a mirror to show her who her worst enemy is, and shy Katie, who, at Penny's urging, stows away in a van headed for Albany. As the town divides over the abortion issue, the dynamics of public dispute are mirrored in the sensitive negotiations of the Daigle family when Marguerite returns to find Mahalia determined to live with Isabel, now totally convinced that abortion is a sin. The narrative moves swiftly from conflict to conflict, buoyed by Sharp's perfect timing and occasionally ecstatic prose that renders water moccasins as "black ink dropped in water" and a truck headlight as "a tilted goblet of gold liquid." (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
An eight-year-old rebel named Penny serves as the narrator in this novel in which a dysfunctional family comes face to face with the abortion controversy and right-to-life politics. Penny and her 15-year-old sister, Mahalia, are left in the care of a neighborhood woman, Isabel Flood, while their flighty and neglectful mother is recuperating from a breakdown and bout with alcoholism. Having been raised in an orphanage, straight-laced Isabel is firmly dedicated to the right-to life movement. Accompanied by several women from Stein Evangelical church, she distributes leaflets, encourages women like Lucy and Mrs. Wroblewski to bear their babies, helps poor and needy women with food and child care, and maintains a singularly rigid attitude toward life and Bible-based religion. Mahalia, who seeks black and white rules that will help her live in a gray world, escapes her "crazy" family and willingly follows in Isabel's footsteps. Family tension grows as Mahalia becomes more involved with Isabel's mission. A crisis is finally reached when the fanatical Isabel, her supporters, including Mahalia and a busload of right-to-lifers from out of town, picket Stein High to protest the teaching of the controversial poem, "the mother." The title of the book comes from this thought-provoking poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950). "Abortions will not let you forget...." says the poem, exploring the continuing ambivalence between fear and justification, between right and wrong, still present in the mind of a mother who has had abortions. Gradually, things begin to get out of hand, and Mahalia must decide which side she is on. This book introduces thought-provokingissues for teens and older readers alike and wrestles with what happens when idealism parts company with reality. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Hyperion, 384p., $13.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Susan G. Allison; Libn., Lewiston H.S., Lewiston, ME SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Library Journal
Sharp s novel, her fifth book (e.g., Crows Over a Wheat Field), is well worth reading; the author intertwines the themes of family love, alcoholism, abortion, betrayal, and the power of a fanatically held belief. Marguerite Daigle, a widow struggling to raise two daughters in Stein, NY, is drinking too much. When her brother and her fiancE, David, whisk her away for a drying out treatment, 16-year-old Mahalia and eight-year-old Penny are left in the care of Isabel Flood, a local babysitter who is a fanatic right-to-lifer. Penny, the narrator, later recalls the events, including the effect of abortion on the fragile families of Isabel s church, the near-breakup of the Daigle family when Mahalia wholeheartedly attaches herself to Isabel, and the family reconciliation when Marguerite returns, cured and married to David. Meanwhile, Isabel s fanatical protests, including the destruction of the high school library, lead to a prison sentence. All these events, as related by a hyperactive child, take on a slightly comic aspect. Although the narrator offers some comments from her adult perspective, the reader is well aware that these issues are still major concerns in our society. Recommended for all public libraries. Cheryl L. Conway, Univ. of Arkansas Lib., Fayetteville Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Craig Seligman
Strangely gentle and funny . . . Sharp has the born novelist's gift of breathing life into her characters . . . I loved this book, probably more than it deserves, but I can't help it -- Sharp's gifts are enormous.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
This time out, Sharp gets as preachy as her pro-life antagonist, in a compelling but decidedly one-sided exploration of the abortion issue. The Daigles are a family of fiery Louisiana Catholics transplanted to the bleak prison town of Stein in upstate New York. In the summer of 1977, it becomes clear that widowed mother Marguerite is losing her battle against the bottle. The more Marguerite drinks, the more her older daughter, teenaged Mahalia, gravitates toward Isabel Flood, neighborhood busybody and humorless antiabortion zealot. Without especially liking Isabel or her ideas, Marguerite nevertheless lets her exert ever-greater influence over Mahalia's life. In fact, when Marguerite goes off with boyfriend David Slattery to dry out, she leaves both Mahalia and pesky eight-year-old Penny in Isabel's care. In one hilarious scene after another, Isabel drags the sisters along on her daily rounds to convert the town's weaker-willed denizens. Little Penny fights her every step of the way, singing dirty versions of "Barnacle Bill The Sailor" at the most inappropriate moments. When Marguerite finally returns home, sober and married, she must fight Isabel for Mahalia's affection. Assisting in this effort is her salty but big-hearted brother, F.X. Molineau. Matters come to a head when Isabel and her fellow right-to-lifers discover that the high school is teaching a poem on abortion called "The Mother." Not only do they picket the school and pass our gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, they break into the library and pour pig's blood on the free-speech display. Sharp knows how to create wonderfully quirky characters and set them against each other in bizarre situations. But this latesteffortshares the central flaw of its predecessor (Crows Over a Wheatfield, 1996): she just can't resist pouring on the ideology.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786862665
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 8/23/2000
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula Sharp is the author of The Woman Who Was Not All There, The Imposter, and Lost in Jersey City, and a translator of Latin American fiction, including Antonio Skármeta's novel The Insurrection. Her books have won her the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voice Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Wisconsin Library Association Banta Award. A graduate of Columbia Law School, she practices criminal law in New York.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Catholics


        F.X. and my mother grew up in Franklin, Louisiana, just south of New Orleans, until they moved to the city in my mother's late teens so that F. X. could attend blind school there. Here is their favorite piece of family history: Their grandmother was widowed early with several children and remarried a Protestant, a man named Carl Casburgue who proved to be a decent husband and kind stepfather. When he lay dying ten years later from malaria, his wife sent for a priest to come to Franklin's outskirts and administer extreme unction. The priest refused, naturally, because Carl was a Protestant. But my great-grandmother was beyond reason with grief. She wanted a guarantee that if she ever strove to make it to heaven, Carl would be there too. "And so my uncles," F. X. would say, "rode to the rectory on a pair of mules and dragged the priest out of bed at gunpoint, and tied him to one of the mules and carried him back to where Carl lay dying. They made the priest say extreme unction with a gun muzzle pressed to his head."

    My mother and F.X. loved this story. They could not mention their step-grandfather's death without falling off their chairs laughing. By the time I was eight years old, I had heard the tale so many times that I could conjure the spectacle in my mind's eye as vividly as if I had participated in it only moments before: I could feel the black metal in my great-uncle's hand pressing against the priest's temple, hear the muck sucking at the mules' feet as they loped through darkness,mark the priest's consternation as he ushered a man toward heaven whom he believed did not deserve it.

    Our family's attitude toward religion explains in part why Isabel Flood, the only religious zealot I have ever known well, was able to lead Mahalia onto a narrow path, before landing herself in jail. Both Mahalia and I were raised to view God with a kind of naive skepticism. No one had told Mahalia that religion, once it entered the blood, could be a rage-red feeling, full of light; that goodness could blaze through you hotter than hell; that whirlwind voices could seize your throat and pour through you, talking in tongues; or that God Himself could act and command people in ways so crazy and irrational that my mother might seem calm and well-reasoned in comparison.

    When people asked what religion we were, we had been raised to answer, "Seventh-generation lapsed Louisiana Catholics." My mother said that she sent us to Catholic school not to make us Catholic, but because she wanted us to understand firsthand why it was impossible to follow the church's teachings. When my sister returned from her first day of kindergarten at All Saints Elementary and asked whether we were baptized, my mother said, "Just tell them you are, but I'll tie a rock to my head and I'll drown myself in the Mississippi before I let anyone throw holy water on you." When Mahalia asked why, my mother gave varying, inconsistent answers. She told us that our father had been the kind of Holy Roller who believed people should not be baptized until they were old enough to comprehend the significance of full-immersion baptism. She told us, alternately, that she had wanted to baptize Mahalia, but that the priest had not shown up for the christening. This, she felt, was a kind of holy retribution for the priest, who had been forced to perform a ceremony by our family two generations before. She told us, in addition, that we were not baptized on principle because she thought it was "wrong to belong to anything exclusive, especially heaven."

    Given my mother's hostility toward religion, it was remarkable that she had married my father, Joseph Daigle, an observant Baptist who never missed Sunday services and expected her to attend with him. I do not know how he handled her views on religion, or whether my mother's beliefs simply changed or reverted after his death, out of bitterness or heartache or a desire to bury any ties to his religion with him. My father died of a heart attack shortly after I was born, when Mahalia was seven. I have no recollections of him. When I was very young, my mother did not speak of him, except to say once that she believed she "might have loved him too much." Her marriage to my father was the only interval in her adult life when she had stopped working and trusted herself fully to another person's care.

    My father's death only a few years after he relocated her to Stein was especially terrible for my mother, who had no older relatives to turn to. Once, when I was grown, she told me, "So many people close to me disappeared when I was young—I lost my father and mother before I was twenty, and so when my husband died, I thought I made people vanish." As a child, I saw my mother's life as a vast black river under a black night: She had no guide, no handhold extended from a boat, nothing but the movement forward. No map, no compass, no mother or father to row her into womanhood, no husband to call to across the dark water of her middle age. My mother's early womanhood required tremendous strength and independence. She turned down a college scholarship in order to care for F. X., and worked as a secretary to pay for his education at blind school, and later to cover the expense of a reader to help him through Tulane. By the time F. X. had his first journalism job and offered to send her "to Radcliffe or Newcomb, anywhere your heart could desire," my mother had met my father, who, she said, "married me and packed me off to Antarctica, New York, and I considered myself lucky at the time." After Mahalia was born, my mother lost herself in housewifery for seven years. When Mahalia was four, my mother miscarried a boy in mid-pregnancy, and subsequently decided to go back to school at a local New York college to get a business degree. However, my father discouraged her; she abandoned plans to further her education and remained a homemaker until my birth three years later. "Married women were not supposed to work in those days," my mother once told us evenly, without betraying strong passions on the subject.

    My mother held together for many years following my father's death. After the funeral, she found employment at minimum wage as a secretary for a lawyer in Dannemora. The lawyer's name was Mr. Snook; and F. X. always referred to him teasingly as "Mr. Snook, with whom your mother did not have an affair." After nine months, my mother changed jobs and went to work for a different lawyer, in Plattsburgh, who paid his legal secretaries better but required her to come in on occasional Saturdays. His name was Parker Barks, and most of his business was drawing up wills and parceling out estates. My mother called him "the Graverobber" because, she said, "he makes his living stealing from the dead." However, he allowed her to leave each afternoon at four-thirty, so that she could arrive home an hour after us, as long as she took with her any typing that had to be completed for morning deadlines. He gave her a telephone with a speaker button, through which he would dictate legal documents in a sepulchral voice Mahalia and I liked to imitate. ("Mrs. Stickley's will clearly expresses the intent to leave her sons nothing and to donate her entire estate to the children's museum.")

    My mother's life must have been hard, in those years. She must have been lonely, and it must have been exhausting, caring for two small children and working for a man whom she thought of as the Graverobber. I remember that when I was in early elementary school, she would come home from the office, prepare us dinner, and then work one or two more hours after my bedtime, typing up dictation she had taken in shorthand. To this day, I find the pounding noise of typewriter keys comforting. My mother typed one hundred words a minute and could take shorthand faster than anyone I've ever known. She taught Mahalia and me shorthand in elementary school, and I saw it as a private language that bound my mother and sister and me together. No one at All Saints wrote shorthand. For years, I enjoyed confounding my classmates and teachers by taking notes in that mysterious writing that looked like the flights of swallows or the runes of a mystical, feminine society.

    In the morning when we awoke, my mother's typewriter was already going, as she finished odd assignments. By seven, when we got up, she would have large breakfasts on the table: tomato juice spiced with Tabasco sauce; sausage and biscuits; grits F. X. sent from Louisiana; and scrambled eggs with tomatoes and hot peppers. I remember feeling keenly the dogged heroism of my mother's life, her competence and energy, and believing that the world was something that could be mastered easily, reduced to shorthand, scrolled into a typewriter, and retyped to correctness.


You might ask how a woman like Isabel Flood first insinuated herself into a family like ours. Complicated as she was, her method was straightforward—she slipped in through one of those holes that can develop in families—"waltzed in through my flaws," my mother would later reconstruct. But to me, her point of entry was located slightly differently; it tore open the love between my mother and sister, which was special and peculiar and vulnerable, because my mother and sister were so fundamentally different from each other. My sister was a self-conscious, orderly, and well-behaved person; even as a child, I often had the sense that only my mother's jitterbugging energy and wild bouts of humor could have lured Mahalia into the dance of life. No one but my mother could overcome Mahalia's quirky and outlandish terrors of small, unpredictable things. My sister, although generally self-possessed, was—unlike me—afraid of lightning and thunder, and actually trembled when she heard them. She would go stark still with fear at the sight of a snarling dog or a rat snake or someone's else's broken arm after they fell out of a tree. She could not stomach late-night movies that involved vampires emerging in murky rooms, or poisonous spiders climbing onto the pillow of a sleeping man. She was also terrified of routine trips to the dentist or to the doctor. Mahalia had always been frightened beyond reason of shots—she would turn dead white with fear at the sight of a needle, and stand frozen outside our pediatrician Dr. Epstein's office, refusing to enter, until my mother found the words to coax her inside.

    When we had received our German measles shots the summer before I started third grade, my mother had taken Mahalia by the elbow in the doctor's hallway and told her, "I'll sing a silly song and you concentrate on saying it to yourself to the end—don't even pause when you feel the shot, just keep saying the words." My mother had leaned forward and whispered into Mahalia's ear a nursery rhyme my mother customarily changed to make us giggle:


"I had a little sister
Her name was Penny Daigle
I put her in the bathtub
To see what she would finagle.
She traded the water for whisky
She traded her washcloth for liver,
She tried to sail the bathtub
down the Mississippi River.
She drank up all the whisky
And ate up all the soap
She tried to eat the bathtub
But it wouldn't fit her throat.
`Measles' said the doctor.
`Rabies!' said the nurse.
`Nothing!' said the lady
with the alligator purse."


Mahalia had mouthed the words nervously and allowed herself to be led inside the doctor's office; she remained standing to the end, her eyes closed, and then passed out right in my mother's arms, ghost-pale and limp, while my mother cradled her shoulders and head, smiling down at her as if she were the Christ child.

    My mother and Mahalia, unalike as they were, at times fit together perfectly because my mother was so good in unavoidable crises, in those moments that embarrassed Mahalia with the drama they wrenched from her. Six months before, when Mahalia had gotten her first period, she had sat on her bed, wringing her hands and crying, "I can't bear it! I can't believe we have to go through this every single month! Every month for the rest of our lives!" My mother had kneeled in front of her, and asked with mock astonishment, "Would you rather have a PENIS?" We had all dissolved into raucous, ribald laughter.

    Before the year of Isabel's appearance, my mother sometimes induced Mahalia to shed her school uniform, draw on my mother's silk bathrobe, and spend hours at my mother's dresser mirror as they preened and tittered at one another, trying on intoxicating perfumes and outrageously colored lipsticks.


* * *


Shortly after I started third grade, our home altered. I do not know why my mother's life first began to spiral downward and lose its center, whether some special event marked a turning point in her existence. She was a private person, although it often took people years to discover this, because she was generally warm and talkative and listened to scandals with a pleasurable sense of irony and with what I now see was a rare disinclination to be judgmental. It was impossible to get facts from her that she did not want to reveal. I asked my mother one day when I was in elementary school, "What made you decide to marry Daddy?" I had meant the question harmlessly, wondering how women reached the point where they threw themselves away and surrendered their souls and very names to men.

    "That's my life," my mother answered. Not yours." My mother used this phrase to mean, simply, that people should mind their own business, that they would never have enough facts to sum up a person unless they were that person. In my early twenties, I once ventured to ask my mother why our lives took such a turn for the worse when I was eight. "Your lives took a bad turn because mine did," she answered. She added infuriatingly, "As to why mine did, that's my life."

    Perhaps she mourned a lost lover we never knew about, or perhaps she had financial worries that she kept from us. She might have been falling apart all along, gradually, and finally collapsed like an old house, under the pressure of constant housework and child care and a full-time job. Perhaps she felt unbearably unfulfilled; she was intelligent and well-read but had never held a job more interesting than secretarial work. Or perhaps it was just the liquor itself, working independently with its own exuberant will.

    The first night my mother did not come home by dinnertime, Mahalia and I were frantic with worry. I had just turned eight. It was a Saturday in October when the Graverobber had asked my mother to work until late afternoon. We waited until long past dark, and then, in a period of six hours, Mahalia called the Graverobber's office a dozen times and let the phone ring on and on when no one answered. We did not even think to make supper that first night; we were that helpless and frazzled. We waited at the front window and watched every passing car, leaning toward its promising tilt and deceleration at our corner, and then slumping with disappointment as its tires whooshed by. At one point, we put on our coats and sat on our front steps until we froze, as if by baring ourselves to the elements we might make clear the seriousness of our claim.

    Snow lay on the ground and the sky above us was what F. X. called "Bright Night," words he had once heard used to describe blindness, the grayish yellow of a cloudy night sky reflecting snow. (He differed with the description. He said that for him, blindness never sat still. It radiated sudden fluorescences of blackened color, with yellows flashes at the periphery.)

    This is when our initial personal encounter with Isabel Flood occurred. She appeared first under a corner streetlight about a block away. The light fell on her mustard-colored hood as she entered a circle of illumination, and then she disappeared into a hollow of darkness, and reappeared as an ochre shadowiness growing larger with each step. When she was about a half block from us, I could make out her thin legs picking carefully over snowy patches on the sidewalk. She slowed down a little when she saw us, and then looked away until she was right before us.

    She stopped a foot from Mahalia and asked, "Did your parents lock you out?"

    "Why would they lock us out?" I answered.

    Isabel removed her hood. Her hair was in pigtails, which struck me as odd for an adult, but in the darkness it was hard to guess her age. Her hand rustled in her pocket, and I heard the ringing of metal on metal. I was surprised she had spoken to us. Most adults in Stein would have been reluctant to pry into our lives; they would have left us alone, or maybe nodded to us.

    "It's late and cold to be out here," Isabel said.

    Mahalia groped for a response that would not embarrass us. "We came outside to look at the stars," she said finally.

    Isabel tilted her head back and stared up at the starless heavens. "That's peculiar," she answered.

    She lingered a moment longer, I guessed to see if we had anything further to reveal. Then she said, "I live there, in that red brick house on the corner. Bottom floor." She continued on, and we watched her until the darkness swallowed her. A minute later, the interior downstairs light of a corner house turned on and remained on.

    "I'm freezing," Mahalia told me. I followed her inside to the living room couch, where we sat, huddled and quiet, until Mahalia fell asleep curled up on the cushions.

    Our house was shaped like a shoe box downstairs: The front hall, living room, and kitchen were all one area, divided on one side by a dusty upright piano that had been my father's, and on the other only by the kitchen table. You could race through our front door and living room with your eyes closed, and without knocking over any furniture, and exit still running through our kitchen door into the backyard. The yard was a small rectangle that abutted a swampy patch of woods, and the kitchen's back door was ponderous carved oak, as if the builder had planned it as an entrance for what might surprise us one day from the wild tangle behind our house. From the armchair where I sat after Mahalia fell asleep, the woods looked frenzied, jerking back and forth like entranced ghostly dancers under the moonlight.

    Once during the night, I rose to get a bottle of Coca-Cola from the refrigerator. Out the kitchen's side window I saw the lights on in Isabel Flood's house. I thought I glimpsed her face, a yellowish gray oval pressed to her window and staring toward our house; I wasn't sure. I walked upstairs and fell asleep on my bed.

    I awoke to the sound of my mother making Sunday breakfast. I pounded on the bathroom door but Mahalia would not let me in. (She had started locking the door and taking morning showers, which struck me as grownup and affected.) I walked downstairs to the kitchen, wearing my wrinkled school uniform from the Friday before—my mother usually did laundry on Saturdays, but that weekend, my play clothes lay damp in the washing machine.

    "Eat for the two of us, honey," my mother said. "I feel like a poisoned dog." She lay plates of eggs and grits, biscuits and ham on the table. She did not eat anything. She sat down opposite me, her hand curled around a mug of hot tea, something I had never seen her drink before. She liked hot coffee with chicory in it. She did not say anything more, which was unusual for her. When my sister came downstairs, dressed in cleaned, ironed clothes, her hair pulled back in a French knot, my mother told her to serve herself from the stove.

    Mahalia stopped on the last step, looking hurt and baffled. "Where were you?" she asked.

    My mother did not answer. She rose to get Mahalia's breakfast herself and set it on the table. Mahalia sat down. She took a few bites, and then asked again, "Where did you go?"

    "I wasn't anywhere," my mother said. She put an extra spoonful of sugar in her tea and handed me a biscuit.

    The telephone rang. "Penny, will you answer it?" my mother asked. "I don't want to speak to anyone who calls." When I picked up the phone, the Graverobber was on the other end.

    "I must speak with your mother immediately," he said—his voice echoed loudly in the kitchen, as if he were sitting right at our table, because the telephone's speaker attachment had been left on; my mother liked to talk through the speaker to her friends or F. X. while she stood at the stove and cooked. The Graverobber's voice sounded strange to me, a little unhinged for a grown-up's. My mother sighed, took the phone, and turned off the speaker.

    "I'm sorry," she told the Graverobber. "The work will just have to wait. Penny's sick, and I can't leave her with a baby-sitter when she's like this. I'll come in early Monday morning." She hung up, saying, "There is no limit to human possibility. Girls, I don't feel well. I'm going back to bed." She carried her tea upstairs to her bedroom, adding under her breath, "Fucking asshole."

    Mahalia turned bright red, as if my mother had slapped her—my mother had never used such language in our presence. She had called the Graverobber other things before: a Warthog from Hell, and Grabbyhands, and a Slime-necked Old Toad. And my mother, especially when she was with F. X., sometimes used religious curses, swearwords that grappled with the Blessed Virgin (The Blessed, Bony Sex-Starved Virgin) and the Holy Spirit (The Great Holy Moly), and even Jesus Christ (Old Skull and Crossbones). Nevertheless, there were scatological words and derogatory names for women and sex generally (words I personally relished) that she believed were crude and unimaginative, offensive and beneath her. And now she had pronounced two of them, one after the other, and in the morning.

    Mahalia raced up the stairs, passing my mother, and slammed our bedroom door in disapproval.

    I climbed the stairs after my mother disappeared inside her room. I opened our bedroom door and decided to slam it a hundred times, to test the hinges: F. X. had once told me that the test of a good door was that "you can slam it through the generations."

    Mahalia surprised me from behind, grabbing my elbow and saying, "Penny? Penny, what are you doing? Are you trying to drive me crazy? You'll wake up Mama, and I need to do my homework!"

    My sister had spread out a pile of books on her bed. She sat down on her bedspread, hunched over a folder, and began writing notes for a science report. Open beside her was a huge, yellowed botany book, Ferns of North America, that had once been our father's: It smelled like moss and dust and cigar smoke. All along the back and side of our house were fern gardens, which my father had started before his death and which Mahalia tended diligently and even zealously: There were Sensitive Ferns, Rattlesnake Ferns and Adder's Tongue, Marginal Woodferns and Cliffbrakes, Lady Ferns and one rare Male Fern. By late summer, extravagant Ostrich Ferns reached halfway across our walk and tickled our shins when we stepped through the backyard. Even during the winter, my sister kept a large terrarium in our room containing a miniature forest of Lipferns and a Maidenhair Spleenwort first propagated by my father, which was now sixteen years old—an impressive testament to Mahalia's ability to take care of things. The forest struggled toward the lavender glow of grow lights behind her now as she studied. Beside the terrarium was a dish of small cellophane packets in which Mahalia had wrapped summer fern fronds, so that they would wither and shed their spores in an infinitely fine dust she intended to plant in the spring.

    I leaned over her shoulder and read:


1. Woodferns like root-welcoming kinds of rocks. Because of their light roots, they do not take away moisture from the plants around them.
2. Some ferns have not changed for 500 million years. Page 412: "The origin of life is shrouded in mystery."
3. Page 289: "The greedy Sensitive and Hayscented ferns have no place in a small garden."
4. In rich soil a clump of Lady Ferns may increase growth to the point of needing restraint.
5. To transplant an Osmunda Fern, use a strong butcher knife and cut a neat circle around it.
6. Sterilize the soil with boiling water before planting spores in containers. Keep them covered and only give them a little air at a time.


My sister placed her hand over the page and said, "Penny, you're distracting me. You should do your own homework."

    I fled downstairs to play outside. I felt indifferent on the best of days about Mrs. Fury's assignments, and recently she had proposed what she called "my personal newfangled theory that children should start learning languages in third grade, and French above all because it's the most cosmopolitan language." Every morning, she made us sing "Frere Jacques," and she gave us lists of French Vocabulary words to memorize. Later we would have to stand up in class and use them, not in the middle of French sentences, but in English ones: "My chat meows," "I like to read livres." I knew enough to understand that Mrs. Fury wanted to change us into something we were not—something any sane, healthy child would laugh himself sick over. On Friday, she had made me stand in the hall because I resisted her.

    I had told the class, "Chitty-chat. In English that means, `Would you like to buy some lipstick?'" The children behind me giggled, and I continued, "And in Russian, it means, `Do you have a toothpick?'" The children laughed louder, and I stood up in my seat and carried on, "And in dog, it means, `Woof! Woof!' In German it means—" I gave a loud Bronx cheer.

    "Penny!" Mrs. Fury had interrupted. "Why do you disrupt everything? Why do you intentionally interfere with my class every second of the day?"

    Pushing Mrs. Fury from my thoughts, I wandered to the yard beside our own, where a German shepherd usually lay tied to an enormous oak. He growled at me: I howled back at him, setting him into a frenzy of barking. I grabbed a branch of the tree that touched ground just out of his reach, and he leapt upward frantically, his mouth open as if he hoped for me to fall in. He barked until I climbed so high that he gave up and resettled in a hollow he had dug for himself in the dirt. I unsettled a flock of grackles, who scattered upward over the tree, angry and cackling, a black noise. Feeling elated, I sat in a crook at the top, where the limbs were barely larger than my wrist.

    I often perched up there, looking down on the town. From my tree, I could see our street, the neighborhood behind our house, and in the other direction, most of the rest of Stein, which appeared absurdly small and orderly, its grid of houses ending abruptly on three sides in horseradish fields, the prison its dense center. I knew everything that happened on our block—I knew that the woman across the street sunbathed nude on her widow's walk during the summer, and that her husband had once kissed their babysitter beside the attic window, and that our next-door neighbor had once kicked his dog. I had once seen an armed robber race from the town liquor store and hide behind a parked car a block away, gun in hand, invisible to the police who ran in and out of the store's electric doors searching for him. I saw him scratch his head with the muzzle of his pistol. Watched from a bird's-eye view, adults would do outlandish things because they believed they were unobserved—who really thinks God is spying down on them?

    On Sunday while my mother lay in bed, I saw a truck slow down beside the curb while a grown-up in the passenger seat overturned a bag of trash onto the road. I watched a woman emerge from a house four blocks down, calling someone's name; a teenage boy lay on top of a van parked in her driveway, smoking a cigarette and staring at the sky while she walked by him, still calling, and peered up and down the street. I saw a collie overturn a garbage can, and a man urinate in the parking lot behind the florist's, and two boys empty a can of rocks into the slit of the post office mailbox on our corner.

    When I climbed down from my tree and returned home, my mother was still in her bedroom. She slept through lunch and then dinner. Around ten o'clock that night, Mahalia opened two cans of tuna for us, which we ate straight from the tin.

    On Monday morning, my mother did not get out of bed. We waited for her until five minutes before school started and left without eating. My mother did not keep cereal around the house. She believed it was an unhealthy substitute for a real breakfast. Under my coat, I wore the same shirt and jumper I had worn home on Friday and used as play clothes all weekend.

    As we walked toward school, Isabel Flood emerged on her front steps ahead of us. She carried a sheath of pink pamphlets in her mittened hands. I crossed the street, avoiding her instinctively. She waved to us. Mahalia raised her hand in a half-gesture.

    I closed my eyes and eased forward feeling my way with my feet, something that always irritated Mahalia. My mother had once told us how F. X. had begun to walk more quickly as a child when his vision dimmed, "as if racing his blindness to wherever he wanted to go." He memorized the roots and dips in the road outside his house, the laughs and raging voices of neighbors and slaps of their screen doors, the nuances in the barks of dogs on his block, until by the time sightlessness had descended completely on him, "he had a map of our entire world in his head, and it took us a full two weeks before we realized he could no longer see anything, not even a pinpoint of ground." What finally tipped off the family was F. X. reading the eye chart perfectly when the doctor tested him. "F. X. hollered out the letters like a person with twenty-twenty vision," my mother explained. "He had memorized the eye chart. He always had such a boisterous mind." When his family decided to enroll him in a school for the blind, F. X. had said, "The only reason you're sending me there is to teach me to be blind." This statement still made my mother chuckle: It embodied perfectly the rueful irony with which she and her brother both saw the world.

    And so, when Isabel accosted us again by crossing our path at the corner, and stopped Mahalia to say, "Off to school?" I answered, "I'm just going there to learn how to be in school."

    Isabel squinted at me and said, "Open your eyes and button your coat—it's chilly and the sidewalks are icy," and then she turned the corner and was gone.


* * *


Mahalia never acted up in school—she was earnest and hardworking, and had she been in my grade, I might have disliked her for being one of those demoralizing girls who received hundreds on all her tests and enjoyed friendly relationships with her teachers. However, that Monday, Mahalia's history teacher brought her to the principal's office during last period. When she walked in, I was already sitting in the office. I had been there all day—I was usually there. I was unable to pay attention in school, or to stay in my seat, and during the fall Mrs. Fury sent me to the principal, Sister Geraldine, almost every day.

    Sister Geraldine was in her late fifties, short and wiry, and did not wear her wimple in the office—she kept it in her desk drawer and put it on when she wanted to awe outsiders. She had exuberant gray hair, like Einstein's, and a long, slender gambler's nose. She passed the hours at her desk adding up numbers in ledger books and writing letters to wealthier parishes asking them to donate money to All Saints. In those days, All Saints was run by the Sisters of Charity and charged nominal tuition; my mother paid fifty dollars each month for the two of us.

    "Penny," Sister Geraldine told me once, "this is how to ask rich people for money. Don't beat around a bush. Just say, `You're rich. Give me money. I need it.'" My mother laughed when I repeated this to her. She told me she could easily picture Sister Geraldine sitting down among wealthy church patrons from Plattsburgh or Albany, "cowing them with that I-could-drink-you-under-the-table look of hers."

    Early in the year, Sister Geraldine had installed a child's desk beside hers for me alone. "You're driving one of our best lay teachers into premature retirement," she told me. "You're the second worst-behaved student this school has ever had." I asked her who had been the worst. She smiled, as if evil amused her. She visited Stein Correctional Facility every Saturday, and I imagined that she had seen men at their wickedest. On some days, Sister Geraldine would lean over and tickle me.

    The day Mahalia appeared at the principal's office, Mrs. Fury had brought me there after early morning recess because she caught me doing flips on the playground, something Mrs. Fury had outlawed. I would jump into the air until I was upside down, perfectly perpendicular to the ground, my head inches from the asphalt, my arms folded behind me as if straitjacketed.

    "I'm not going to be responsible for your death," Mrs. Fury told me as she dragged me down the hall. "You've frightened every child in the class." I knew this wasn't true. I was the only third grader who could do flips, and the other children admired them because they were so dangerous. As we approached Sister Geraldine's office, I saw Mrs. Fury's face in the large mirror at the head of the school hall: She looked as angry as a child.

    She stopped and pointed me toward the mirror, holding my head in the vice of her hands. "Penny," she said. "I want you to see who your own worst enemy is." I closed my eyes and turned my head sideways for extra protection. This was when I first resolved not to look in the mirror again until I was an adult. I thought I could meet the challenge of remembering to avert my eyes whenever Mrs. Fury led me past the school mirror on the way to the office. I recalled F. X. telling me that the oddest thing about regaining his sight was peering into a mirror for the first time in a dozen years. "I had expected to see a boy and instead I found a monstrous green-eyed adult."

    "Fine, don't look," Mrs. Fury said, exasperated.

    Mrs. Fury left me at Sister Geraldine's door, stepped inside the office and announced to her that I lacked "any rudimentary sense" of right and wrong. "Penny Daigle may be smart," Mrs. Fury said dismissively, as if this fact were of no concern to her—a teacher. "But a lot of good it's going to do anyone. At first I thought Penny was just hyperactive, because she doesn't act like an eight-year-old girl—she acts like one of the badly behaved boys, or a first grader. But now I sometimes wonder if it's deeper. Maybe it's something organic, something she can't help. Do you think it's possible that someone can be born without a sense of right and wrong, the way people can be born color-blind or with an inoperative limb?" Her monologue stopped there because Mrs. Fury saw me listening. She frowned in that way adults save exclusively for children—with that exaggerated expression that is a parody of condemnation. She was in her late thirties, wore a blond wig, and was thin, with a nose so upturned that it appeared almost tipless, which made me think, against my will, of a skull.

    Sister Geraldine told her, "It's part of our work to take care of lost lambs." She stepped outside her office and said, "Penny, take this note downstairs to the school nurse and then come straight back."

    I would never know how Sister Geraldine responded to Mrs. Fury. I was interested in Sister Geraldine's reply, because I saw she was far more sensible than my teacher. I tried answering Mrs. Fury's question myself. Because my mother liked to say people were capable of anything, I believed it was possible I was missing the very piece Mrs. Fury wanted me to have. I savored the thought that there might be something special, a little monstrous, about me. That year, I did things no other girl in the third grade would have. I bit a button off a sixth grader's jumper during recess. I kicked the fourth grade's volleyball onto the road so that an oil truck ran over it. I leapt from the top bar of the jungle gym—immediately after Mrs. Fury told us always to climb down carefully—and dislocated my shoulder. When called on in reading group, I sometimes memorized my paragraph while the other children took their turns, and then when mine came, I would read out loud with my eyes closed. Or sometimes, I read my sentences backward. Mrs. Fury would pretend I hadn't. She tried to choose her battles with me carefully, but sometimes, when I antagonized her enough, she would make statements like, "Do you do these things to torment yourself, to ostracize yourself among your own kind?" and "Satan rebelled against God, Penny, and now here you are, rebelling against me." Once Mrs. Fury even said, "Are you above the rules, like a criminal? Do you have a criminal mind?"

    I disliked her intensely, and unlike the other children in the classroom, I lacked all ability to conceal my feelings. Any emotion, joy or anger or the thrill of risk, would carry me away, and I would watch myself as if from a dizzying height, with a calm elation, while I ripped out all of the pages of my spelling workbook, one by one, and stacked them on top of the empty cover. At such times, I was profoundly happy; I felt impossibly close to things, as if I were breathing down the neck of the world.

    When Mrs. Fury sent me to the office, Sister Geraldine gave me punishments that were laborious and time-consuming. She frequently asked me to copy a page from a large Webster's dictionary, with all the diacritical marks intact; or she would give me a multiplication problem of impossible size, twenty by twenty digits. She was amused by the fact that I could write shorthand, and on some days she would command me to translate a chapter of the New Testament into shorthand. On other days, she would require me to diagram every sentence in a chapter of the Old Testament, or tell me to copy instructive phrases containing underlined vocabulary words. Thus, I might spend all day by her side, like a court clerk, writing two hundred times:


I will not pretend to be inebriated when Mrs. Fury teaches history, and fall to the floor.
I will not adhere my books to each other with white glue.
I will not draw pictures of Mrs. Fury, portraying her as a cadaverous individual who sleeps in a casket.
I will not draw derogatory pictures of Father Peter, depicting him as a woman.


When I brought these punishments home for my mother to sign, she would often laugh outright, so that I received the impression that they were a shared amusement between her and Sister Geraldine. Nevertheless, the assignments had some effect on me. As I sat down to begin them, I could feel that jittery chaos whirl through me that arose whenever I was forced to sit still. I jiggled my knee in my seat; I jumped up from my desk and wrote standing up, without realizing that I was doing it; I chewed on my pencil until the yellow paint flaked off, leaving only the gnawed brown surface and the feel of graphite on my teeth. But eventually, the rhythm of the work would pull me in, and I would grow relentlessly methodical and finish my assignment. When I was done, Sister Geraldine would let me read science-fiction books she kept on the shelf beside her desk: The Illustrated Man, Planet of the Fire Ants, Nights of the Unborn, and others that were too hard for me, with Christian themes and names like That Hideous Strength. Most of the books had vocabularies well beyond my comprehension, but I understood a few of them well enough to get lost in their worlds, in battles fought against monsters who made the worst human evil seem paltry. Sister Geraldine appeared to read nothing else—I thought she privately savored the idea of worlds beyond the influence of Rome, beyond the edges of the earth.


* * *


When I returned from taking Sister Geraldine's note to the nurse, Mrs. Fury was telling her, "I want to discuss putting Penny on Ritalin." I knew what Ritalin was—it was the medicine an energetic fifth-grade girl named Persis Boards took every day at lunchtime after she was suspended for throwing the school's fire alarm.

    Sister Geraldine appraised me, looking down her gambler's nose, and answered, "If Penny were having trouble with her schoolwork, it would be different, but she reads and spells like an eighth grader. She's the only eight-year-old I've ever known who can read and write shorthand! I think that's remarkable. Ritalin doesn't cure everything, in any case—" Sister Geraldine closed the door again, leaving me outside. I heard Mrs. Fury mention my mother. The words she used were muffled behind the wall. They sounded like "Mrs. Daigle doesn't know sticks from sticks!"—nonsense spoken with a mean, insinuating tone.

    Outside the window, a few autumn leaves clung frantically to an old maple in the school's front yard. My mother did not like the fall; it was emblematic of her displacement from a culture and climate she had been born to: southern Louisiana with its ripe, exuberant air, its melodramatic bayous full of mustached catfish and snapping turtles and water moccasins like black ink dropped in water. The fact that when I looked at leaves in fall, I felt the same sense of estrangement, although I had visited Louisiana only a few times, impresses me now with how much I viewed life vicariously through my mother.

    Mahalia crossed the lawn under the maple tree, right in front of the window, escorted by Mr. Molinari, the tenth-grade history teacher. He had a look of formal unhappiness I was well acquainted with; he frowned for the purpose of signaling that a wrong had occurred. Mahalia's dark red hair stretched out behind her like a banner. Even at that moment of ignominy, she looked like a heretic sure of her position, and Mr. Molinari like a cruel, petty official from one of All Saints' biblical school plays. I wondered if I were misreading the situation. The idea that Mahalia could be in trouble seemed incredible to me even as Mr. Molinari ushered her up the steps to the door of the principal's office.

    Mr. Molinari directed Mahalia, "You wait right there, young lady." He bumped into Mrs. Fury, who departed without looking at me. He stepped into Sister Geraldine's office and told her, "I will have to talk with you privately."

    When Mr. Molinari closed Sister Geraldine's door, Mahalia wiped her face so that I could not see her tears. I tried to catch her attention, and smirked in solidarity, but she pretended not to notice. She looked through the window at the trees as if she ached for them, for their wasted dry leaves rattling in the bleak wind.

    "Mahalia!" I asked. "How come you're here?"

    "Why are you here?" she answered. A flush crept over her cheeks and took refuge in the roots of her hair. She was the only one in the family who blushed, and it fascinated me. Because her face had my mother's olive cast, Mahalia's features seemed to darken instead of redden. They turned the deep color of sherry.

    "I'm here because I'm a lost lamb!" I cried. "A little lost lamb!"

    "Don't talk so loud, Penny!" Mahalia whispered. She turned her back to me. Her calves and ankles were long and slender like my mother's, deerlike. Even standing there looking paralyzed, Mahalia seemed graceful, almost womanly, and she was mysterious to me. I could never predict or understand the workings of her thoughts. Why did she care so much if she wasn't perfectly behaved?

    Sister Geraldine emerged from her office and said, "Mr. Molinari tells me you were impolite to him, Mahalia." She paused, studied me, and said, "Penny, I want you to take this paper with you to Mrs. Fury's room, and copy this sentence two hundred times." Sister Geraldine wrote on the top of a blank sheet:


    I will not contravene Mrs. Fury's edicts concerning perilous flips.


I took Sister Geraldine's sentence and ran down the hall toward the third grade, but I stopped when I heard Mrs. Fury's voice. It rose like a siren that wakes you up at midnight: She was scolding some other child. I turned and climbed up the stairs to the second floor, where the upper grades were kept. I entered Mr. Molinari's classroom. A teacher's aide stood instructing the tenth grade. "Sister Geraldine sent me here to do this," I told her, holding out my paper. The aide read it and indicated that I should sit down at a desk in the fourth row; she never guessed that I was expected back in the third grade. Tenth graders who misbehaved were sometimes sent to the lower grades, which was thought to be humiliating, and third graders were sometimes sent to the upper grades, which was thought to be sobering.

    As I copied my sentences, I wondered if there were children who simply weren't made for school. What if in some future world parents had to decide which children should go to school and which shouldn't? Those who weren't fit to educate would be trained for jobs no good person would want, but that someone had to do: We would be asked to hold up the banks of other planets, or be placed on rockets and encouraged to loot the spaceships of alien enemies. Or we would be the first people to start life in other galaxies: We would be wild, we would eat with our hands like the first humans on earth. I would be good at eating with my hands, at not caring if I never washed, at singing wordless songs in front of fires.

    A tenth-grade girl I had never seen before passed me a note that said, Mahalia called Mr. Molinari an asshole. She wrote MR. MOLINARI IS AN ASSHOLE, ASSHOLE, ASSHOLE on her paper in shorthand, and Mr. Molinari made her read it to the class.

    I personally used far worse words than this on a daily basis. My classmate Joel Renaud and I had a list of twenty-seven curses we had culled from adults, which I kept in a cigar box under my bed, and which included phrases as inspired as "Christ in black holy hell," and "piss-poor" and "pissing drunk," and "lower than snakeshit," and "Mary, Bloody Udder of us," which Joel and I found sublimely ridiculous, the funniest of all. However, for Mahalia, directing profanity at a teacher was as extreme as it might have been for me to burn down my own house. I sat in my tenth-grade seat until the end of the last period, longing to learn what Mr. Molinari had done to merit such a curse from Mahalia, to move her to try on just a little bit of badness like a girl sampling perfumes on her mother's dresser. The idea that Mahalia and I might be in cahoots and ridicule our teachers' wrath together elated me; I thought that she might understand me better and never turn on me the scornful look she now directed so often at our mother.

    When the bell rang, there was a general search for me. My mother had been summoned to the school to discuss Mahalia and had not found me in the third grade. Mrs. Fury was beside herself when she learned I had escaped upstairs. Her voice strained and anxious, she appeared with my mother and Mahalia at Mr. Molinari's doorway.

    "Penny's not manageable," Mrs. Fury told my mother. "I think she needs to be examined by a psychologist. Have you heard of Ritalin?"

    My mother squinted, as if her eyes bothered her, or as if she were trying to see me in a skewed way. When she spoke, her sentences shimmied around Mrs. Fury's tired, chaperoning words, and I sensed my teacher's dissatisfaction. "I'm sorry Penny makes your life such a living nightmare, Mrs. Fury," my mother said. "You got her at a bad age. She'll calm down in a couple of years. Most of the children in my family start off like wild animals, but we run out of energy and behave once life weighs us down. Except Mahalia—Mahalia takes after her father's family." She added, "Except today." Facing Mahalia, my mother tried to arrange her expression into a look of reproof, but seemed to give up in the middle. "I'll speak to you later," she told my sister. "Penny, Sister Geraldine wants you in the office tomorrow morning." As if continuing her admonishments, my mother turned back to my teacher and concluded, "Mrs. Fury, it's difficult for me to be called away from work at three o'clock. I'm sorry, but I have to be leaving."

    We followed my mother out of the school and down the street toward our Oldsmobile. She walked hurriedly and did not chastise either Mahalia or me further. In the front yard of the house near our car, a woman and her daughter kneeled, planting bulbs in a car tire painted blue. They made me feel sad and anxious. At my house, we had a better tire—it was much larger, a tractor tire that sat in our backyard. The past spring, I had spotted it on the edge of town, and because it had been too large to fit in the car, my mother had helped me roll the tire down Main Street, at my request. She had worn a green dress with a bare back, tied at the neck, and high-heeled sandals, and she had not cared when people stared at us. The last two blocks, she had let me climb into the tire and whirl around inside until I fell out. Afterward, she had poured black dirt into it from a burlap sack, and then sat at my side, instructing me as I tucked squares of petunias into the soil. The tire lay in our backyard all summer. From up high in my tree, it looked like a wild purple eye; when the air stirred, it transformed into a lush violet mouth gobbling down the wind.

    My mother struggled with the Oldsmobile door, so that the woman kneeling in her yard looked up at her oddly. Mahalia avoided catching the woman's eye and climbed into the front seat beside my mother, glancing at her furtively as we headed down the road.

    "Mahalia," my mother asked, "what happened in Mr. Molinari's class that made you feel called upon to write that note?"

    Mahalia turned away from my mother and did not answer.

    When we reached Main Street, my mother said, "Here we are—displaced persons on the edge of nowhere." In 1976, Stein was still far enough from anywhere that it had never been caught in the outstretched arms of centralized businesses such as Long John Silver's and the Gap. Its Main Street consisted of a small women's apparel store called The Closet; a grocery store; a florist that stayed open all hours but usually stocked only chrysanthemums and a pale array of dyed carnations; two of the town's six taverns; and an Esso station that sold coffee, children's coonskin caps for $3.00, and bright orange hunting apparel. I half-closed my eyes to make the street dim and turn into a dark river. Tall forms, gray sails, approached us: I opened my eyes and saw three uniformed prison guards sauntering toward us. Two boys from the blind school walked behind them, canes outstretched and marking time so perfectly in tandem that they must have intended it for their amusement. They passed Luther Canon, who owned all the property in town that was worth owning, including Stein Grocery Store, but whose wife and children had left him years earlier. My mother had once taken us to the Stein Tavern for lunch, and he had called me "Captain" and catapulted peanuts from his spoon into a glass stationed to the right of the cash register. Now, whenever I saw him, he walked in an edgy way, almost sidelong, like a man who is balancing on a wall only he can see.

    "Mama, you missed our turn," Mahalia said.

    My mother continued to the end of Main Street. Five blocks from our house, she pulled suddenly onto a side road. She opened the car's front door without turning off the ignition, got out hurriedly, and threw up behind a building. When she was done, she returned to the car and wiped her face with a Kleenex. Her hands were trembling.

    "Can you girls walk home from here?" she asked. "I have to hurry back to work." We slid out of the car and watched her drive off.

    Mahalia stood rigid on the sidewalk, her arms crossed and her hands clasping her sides. Her expression was one of such profound embarrassment edged with pain, that I put my hand on her shoulder. She wrenched away from me and headed toward our street. She walked exactly like my mother, and watching her, I experienced a displaced fear, as if I were watching my own mother leave me behind. I ran to catch up with her. As I reached her, I heard her say, under her breath, "I'll never forgive her! I'll never forgive her!" But I did not believe she meant it.

    A man on the sidewalk turned to stare at Mahalia when she passed him. He catcalled something to her. She pretended not to hear and hurried on. She did not turn once to look at me until she reached the house, flung open the door, and slammed it shut behind us. Then she said, furiously, "I'm going to kill Mama! I'm going to kill her!" She fled up the stairs and locked herself in the bathroom.


* * *


My mother made a symbolic effort to punish Mahalia, although my mother's heart was not in it—all of us knew that, of the three of us, Mahalia needed the least correcting. My mother told me, "I wonder what that poor Mr. Molinari did to make your sister get herself in trouble. Imagine how a homely old water moccasin like him feels when he learns a pretty girl like Mahalia has ridiculed him." My mother told my sister, "You're too old to be acting like Penny," and ordered Mahalia to cook every night for two weeks. My mother must have considered this a light penalty, just enough to memorialize the rare event of Mahalia acting disrespectfully toward a teacher; my sister generally enjoyed cooking. However, this was in fact the worst discipline my mother could have chosen, because it only strengthened Mahalia's fear that our family was coming unglued. My mother, even on the nights she came home late from work, kept a neat house and customarily made us elaborate dinners. She was the kind of cook who put meat in a marinade in the morning, so that it was tender at night; when she served us fruit, she placed a decorative leaf of lettuce under it; every year she canned her own hot pepper sauce in mason jars, and a morning announcement that we would have barbecued ribs for supper kept me hungry all day.

    When the two weeks ended, my mother complimented Mahalia's cooking efforts, telling her, "You're a natural chef because you have a timer in your head that lets you finish the meat and rice at the same time. Cooking is all juggling." My mother then asked Mahalia if she would be willing to continue making dinner, for just herself and me, on Wednesdays. My mother explained that Wednesdays would be her "nights off," when we should expect her to come home after our bedtimes, and when she would trust us to finish our homework and get to bed on time.

    My mother's request must have irked Mahalia unbearably—my mother seemed to have forgotten that cooking, after all, had been characterized as a punishment, and that now Mahalia had fulfilled her sentence and had a right to be freed. The continuing Wednesday dinners seemed to both extend her punishment and rob it of any significance. Thereafter, when she made meals, Mahalia banged the pans loudly on the stove and wore a look of pure outrage. Once, as she peered into a pot, I heard her say, "She needs to go waltzing around some bar and I don't matter at all!" Steam collected on my sister's face like dew; she turned toward me and scowled, as if I were the cause of her heartache.

    Mahalia and I never discussed it, but we knew that Wednesday nights were the time my mother had decided to set aside for drinking. I think my mother was trying to rein herself in; she must have felt that it would be better for us if she compartmentalized her life in this way, so that on the other days of the week we could rely on her. Perhaps having Wednesday to look forward to was the only way she could survive the rest of the week.

    On Wednesday nights, my mother would return home around eleven or midnight. On such nights, she was gay and talkative and I learned more about her during that period than I had up until then. The nature of my mother's confidences strikes me as peculiar now. She did not, as many intoxicated people are prone to do, dwell on her suffering and relate past heartaches with great energy. Instead, her revelations were incidental, factual, commonplace.

    She would tiptoe into our room and lean over us to see if we were asleep (I never was—I was a chronic insomniac), and then perch on my bed or Mahalia's and talk. "Do you know what I did to Mr. Snook before I quit at his office?" my mother asked after midnight one Wednesday. She swayed slightly, as if the bed were a swerving car. "I had to pick up some dry-cleaned suits for him, and when I arrived at the office, I took them into the women's bathroom, and I ripped out all the seams in every crotch, one by one, with a pair of nail scissors. About two inches up the front and two up the back. So that he wouldn't notice when he put them on, but would see his own undergarments when he sat down in a judge's chambers. He wouldn't even understand how it happened. Men are in the dark about anything related to sewing." She revealed that the Graverobber was a terrible speller and barely knew how to punctuate a sentence, but that she "never corrected a single mangled word" when she typed up handwritten letters he told her to send out. "I leave them just as they are, as a warning to those poor people who have hired him."

    Once my mother lay in bed beside me and closed her eyes for so long that I was afraid she had fallen asleep. Finally, she said, "According to F. X., the blackness of night and blindness are similar. Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like for him when he first lost his sight. The year before he finished blind school, he said the school's director told his class that the color which blind people really see is a blankness, a failure to understand color, not blackness, and F. X. disagreed with him: He said he saw a `swampy darkness and flashes of light like lightening bugs flickering in blue mud.' The director told him that proved he was not a true blind person, and F. X. told him he was an idiot, and the director suspended him. He threatened to expel F. X., and I had to go to the school and beg them to let him back in. He had to finish the year there before colleges would accept him. I was only nineteen years old myself at the time. The director told me he would reverse the suspension if he could touch my hair. So I stood there, while the director ran his hands through my hair, saying, `It's wine-colored, it's wine-colored.' After that, F. X. called him `King Hair.' "

    On another night, my mother told me that she had read novels when she had attended Baptist church with my father. She had a leather-jacketed Bible with the pages cut out, which she had ordered in the mail from a catalog called Lady of the Night. The Bible was made to conceal a sizable whisky flask, but she fit paperbacks inside. She sat behind the congregation, in the last pew, where no one could see over her shoulder. "I liked Mary Renault: The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Persian Boy. You wouldn't believe those books," she told me. "They're supposed to be historical novels, but I think my whole generation of gawking, church-cheated wives learned about life outside the missionary position from them." She concluded, "The problem with people who are too good is that they drive everyone around them into a state of secrecy. Look at any high-and-mighty person and you'll see all the people around him weaseling in and out of cave holes all their lives just to find a way to enjoy the darkness." I nodded, wishing I understood what she was talking about. She fell asleep on the edge of my bed so that I held myself awake all night, afraid that I accidentally would push her off.

    My mother and I accommodated ourselves to this Wednesday arrangement, which was like living with two people, one who was private and evasive, and a second one who was intima te in a pleasant, conspiratorial way. At times, I was uncertain which one I liked more. I was unsure exactly how Mahalia felt. She would act exasperated when my mother appeared at the door and refuse to say hello to her, but I knew Mahalia kept herself awake until my mother's return. I suspected that my sister feigned sleep, and that she listened to my mother's stories with her eyes closed.

    On Thursday mornings, we would drag ourselves out of bed, and our mother would serve us breakfast as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened on the evenings before. Her recollection of what she told us on those nights was spotty. Years later, I would inadvertently reveal something about her past that she had told me on one of those Wednesdays, and she would answer, "How in heaven could you possibly know that? You're as chock-full of secrets as a priest in a confessional." My mother, notably, did not go to confession: She claimed the priests of her childhood were "predatory gossips," and once told me, "They'd ask you in a snaky, sexy voice, `So what have you been up to?'" My mother made her voice lascivious and raspy when she said this, so that I laughed devilishly with her, although the priest who haunted All Saints, Father Flahrety, was a taciturn old man who wheezed and waved at us with a gesture that looked half like a blessing, and half as if he were holding out his hand to catch himself before he fell.

    On Thursdays when I walked to school, brimming with my mother's stories, I was unusually quiet—Mahalia's tacit command not to discuss my mother's antics on Wednesday nights robbed me of the desire to talk about anything at all. Thursday was usually the day I behaved the best in class, because I was too dizzy with sleeplessness to cause much trouble.

    By late November, my mother's Wednesday nights pushed Mahalia right into Isabel Flood's arms. On Wednesday evenings, my sister would fix me something simple for dinner, baked chicken or hamburger or minute steak with rice and beans, and then she would wash the pots, wipe her hands on her apron, slip out the back, and walk up the street to Isabel's house. The look on my sister's face on such occasions was a mixture of sorrow and determination. Just once, I followed Mahalia. I threw my dinner in the garbage. (I always did on Wednesday nights—I never ate what Mahalia prepared, but instead consumed bowl after bowl of Cheerios, which my mother had begun serving occasionally at breakfast and which I loved.) I waited until Mahalia was about a block away, and then I grabbed my jacket and followed her. Mahalia knocked on Isabel's door, but instead of inviting her in, Isabel stepped outside. She and Mahalia struck off together down the dark road. Under the streetlights, the snow sparkled as it were full of unmined diamonds. I could not imagine where my sister could be going, and as I followed her, a tumultuous curiosity rocked my heart.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Prologue 1
PART ONE: Marguerite 15
PART TWO: Isabel 137
PART THREE: Mahalia 253
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(2)

4 Star

(1)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2000

    Great characters! Great book!

    This is the best novel I've read in a long time -- it's hilarious, and the characters are so full of life. I Loved You All is also a great book for anyone who wants to understand more about the right-to-life movement. I think the book gives a very sympathetic portrait of a right-to-lifer, although it's pretty clear that the author is pro-choice. I love the main character, Isabel Flood, who is fanatical, but also very kind and likeable, but all of the characters really stay with you, especially the character F.X., the narrator's uncle. F.X. is a recently fired journalist who was once blind, and he always has a novel perspective on everything that he's eager to communicate to whomever he can ruffle. He writes really funny letters to right-to-lifer Isabel that he pretends are written by an embryo named 'Fetus Elegante.' In these letters, F.E. tells Isabel that what fetuses really want is not to be born at all, but instead to stay in the womb forever and avoid the harshness of the 'Birthworld.' The narrator -- a hyperactive 8-year-old named Penny who is continually in trouble -- is somehow perfect for this book. She never preaches; instead she just describes things as they are, whether she's following around a fanatical right-to-lifer or taking in her mother's explanation of why abortion should be legal. Somehow in the end, you like everyone in the book, no matter what side they're on, whether they're the the juvenile delinquent teenager, Nicky Groot; the anti-social organic farmer, Mark Coker; the religious fanatic Isabel; or Penny's stiff-necked sister, Mahalia. Read this book and pass it on to a friend!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2005

    If you're on the fence about buying it... do it!!

    Sharp's writing style drew me right into the characters and their family dynamic. Told from young Penny's perspective, it's a meaningful yet surprisingly easy read. I'm eager to read more by this author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2001

    poignant

    A beautiful poignant story written from the point of view of an eight year old child. Has dysfunctional family themes without the whining and angst. Instead, you come away with hope, strength, and acceptance.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)