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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.