Tending to Grace

Tending to Grace

4.7 4
by Kimberly Newton Fusco

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Lenore is Cornelia’s mother—and Cornelia’s fix-up project. What does it matter that Cornelia won’t talk to anyone and is always stuck in the easiest English class at school, even though she’s read more books than anyone else? She feels strong in the fixing. She cooks vegetable soup so Lenore will eat something other than Ring Dings;

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Lenore is Cornelia’s mother—and Cornelia’s fix-up project. What does it matter that Cornelia won’t talk to anyone and is always stuck in the easiest English class at school, even though she’s read more books than anyone else? She feels strong in the fixing. She cooks vegetable soup so Lenore will eat something other than Ring Dings; she lures her out of bed with strong coffee and waffles. She looks after the house when Lenore won’t get out of bed at all.

So when Lenore and her boyfriend take off for Vegas leaving Cornelia behind with eccentric Aunt Agatha, all Cornelia can do is wait for her to come back. Aunt Agatha sure doesn’t want any fixing.

Maybe this time it’s Cornelia who could use it?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fusco's first novel draws an incisive portrait of a bright and complex teenager who overcomes emotional and material impoverishment. Cornelia's aimless mother, bound for "Vegas" with her boyfriend, yanks her daughter out of ninth grade and drops her off at the broken-down, rural home of Agatha, a great-aunt whom Cornelia has never met. Arranged in brief vignettes, Cornelia's articulate, first-person narrative poignantly reveals the depth of her anger, fear and isolation: "Turning to stone is hard work," she thinks when told of her mother's plans. "First you have to let the anger climb up from deep within you and as it turns over and over and rises up through your chest, you have to clamp your teeth over it and push it back down." Embarrassed by her pronounced stutter, she remains mostly silent, a choice which relegates her to remedial classes instead of the honors English she craves. Much of the plot feels familiar: Agatha, also wounded and an outcast, and Cornelia slowly help each other address their private pain and find new strength. But although the prose is occasionally laden with heavy-handed imagery, it is more typically sinuous and lithe, powerfully conveying a range of heartrendingly real emotions. Ages 12-up. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Recently one of this reviewer's students investigated the topic of extended family members obligated to raise children of ill-equipped, irresponsible parents, a problem that is quite real and growing. Fusco, an award-winning journalist and first-time novelist, tackles the issue admirably as readers meet narrator Cornelia, self-described "bibliophile" and "shadow." She is relegated to middle school remedial classes because she chooses not to speak, concealing a mysterious stutter. Cornelia observes, "When you have a daughter, you don't dump her off somewhere. Parenting 101." But dumped she is—unceremoniously with her Aunt Agatha who uses an outhouse, hangs laundry on oak branches, and serves fiddleheads. While Cornelia's transient existence with mother and boyfriend was less than ideal, the new environment is unsettling. In ninety-eight concise chapters, readers witness Cornelia's growth with a rural, eccentric substitute parent who knows how to care. Early in the novel, Cornelia confesses, "I quit talking . . . Squish the shame down . . . Keep it hidden there. No one gets it, anyway." Her shame of a "look-away" mother is further identified and confronted as Cornelia shapes a life with Agatha. Fusco's poetic prose reveals developed characters, poignant understatement—think minimalist Voigt or Bridgers. Initially hooked by Cornelia's woebegotten metaphor, "My life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket, dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone," readers journey gently along in quiet hope. There are no elaborate chases; no cataclysmic events are necessary. VOYA Codes 4Q 3P M J (Better than most, marred only byoccasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, Knopf, 176p., and PLB Ages 11 to 15.
—Patti Sylvester Spencer
Children's Literature
It is a common literary tale these days: a teenager dumped at an older relative's home by her immature mom. Cornelia's mom wants things that a string of boyfriends has not given her, Cornelia stutters from the pressure of being her mom's caretaker, and Cornelia's aunt lives in the shadow of a 40-year-old tragedy. Predictably, Cornelia and her aunt help each other grow past their self-imposed limits. The story's appeal rises from Fusco's deft shaping of setting and movement. Most of the chapters are a page or two, some as short as three lines, some as long as four pages. The brief scenes—in magazine-story-like snippets—gradually build Cornelia's voice in the reader's mind. That voice is clear, even if her speech is not, and strong enough by the end of the story that she speaks for herself. Her love of books makes this a tempting novel to offer those quiet girls who would rather read than talk. However, the predictability of the story weakens reader involvement as does Fusco's treatment of the peripheral characters. They are a bit flat: the wise young girl who befriends Cornelia, the mean dad who punishes Cornelia's friend for no apparent reason, the kind librarian who does not "look away" when Cornelia stutters. Even so, the portrait of Cornelia and her finding the strength to break through her fears is worth reading. 2004, Alfred A. Knopf, Ages 12 to 15.
—Diane Carver Sekeres
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-Cornelia Thornhill wears neglect like a pall. She avoids eye contact with others, stutters badly, is presumed to be slow at school, and likens herself to a stone, hard and strong way down inside. Taken out of school during ninth grade by her shiftless mother, she is dropped off at the rural New England home of Great-aunt Agatha while mother and her boyfriend depart for places out west. This lonely, virtually invisible girl both misses and resents her absent parent. The short, image-rich, first-person chapters echo Cornelia's anger and stubbornness as she describes her new living situation with the folksy, forthright Agatha. They argue, stop talking, and Cornelia even packs her bag to run away. What brings these unlikely companions back together is their grudging interdependence and Cornelia's recognition that nature-loving Agatha, locally dubbed the Crow Lady, has been as misunderstood as she. Cornelia begins to see her aunt's kindness through the eyes of Bo, a local girl whose nonjudgmental friendship helps Cornelia to grow. Subtle clues indicate that Agatha has been good at hiding the fact that she's illiterate, much as Cornelia has hidden the fact that she is a voracious reader. Agatha allows her niece to teach her to read using a butterfly handbook as a primer. The depiction of Bo's father as a fearsome, controlling man is the only false note in a novel that poetically portrays the human potential to fly after emerging from a cocoon of neglect.-Susan W. Hunter, Riverside Middle School, Springfield, VT Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Narrator Cornelia, 14, makes a new life with her great-aunt when her mother heads for Las Vegas with "the boyfriend." Other neglected teenagers would be lucky to end up with such a stalwart, refreshing relative in their hour of need. Aunt Agatha lives on very little, outside of a small New England town, but works hard to grow produce and harvest wild food, introducing a reluctant city-bred Cornelia to the natural world. Meanwhile, Cornelia searches for a voice in writing and speaking, hindered by her stuttering and a history of ignoring herself in order to take care of her mother. Brief chapters, from one paragraph to three pages, effectively chronicle her growth, including an unaccustomed freedom to argue with a reliable adult instead of catering to an unreliable one. Well-chosen imagery about plants and even about clotheslines, and the recurring challenge of saying her own name despite stuttering, reflect the changes in Cornelia's sense of self. Her struggles and emotions draw the reader into this quiet story that reaches a sad but hopeful conclusion. (Fiction. 12+)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.88(h) x 0.42(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt


We drive out Route 6 on a silent day at the end of May, my mother, the boyfriend, and I. We pass villages with daisies at the doorsteps and laundry hung in soft rows of bleached white. I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel.

But I don't say anything as we head east.

My mother is a look-away.


My teacher is a look-away.

I am a bookworm, a bibliophile, a passionate lover of books. I know metaphor and active voice and poetic meter, and I understand that the difference between the right word and the almost right word, as Samuel Clemens said, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

But I don't talk, so no one knows. All they see are the days I miss school, thirty-five one year, twenty-seven the next, forty-two the year after that. I am a silent red flag, waving to them, and they send me to their counselors and they ask me, "When are you going to talk about it, Cornelia?" I wrap myself into a ball and squish the feelings down to my toes and they don't know what to make of me so they send me back to this class where we get the watered-down Tom Sawyer with pages stripped of soul and sentences as straight and flat as a train track.

We read that the new boy in Tom Sawyer ran like a deer, while the kids in the honors class read he "turned tail and ran like an antelope."

I know, because I read that book, too.


Sam finishes reading; Allison begins. Up one row and down another we go like a set of dominoes, each kid taking a turn at reading aloud and me waiting for my morning to collapse.

" 'It was Monday morning and Tom Sawyer was miserable,'" Allison reads. "'He was always miserable on Monday mornings because it meant he had to go to school.'"

The copy of Tom Sawyer they use for this class sits open on my desk. The one Mark Twain wrote sits on my lap. I match paragraphs to keep my mind on something other than my approaching turn:

"Monday morning found Tom Sawyer miserable. Monday morning always found him so—because it began another week's slow suffering in school."

Allison finishes and Betsy begins. We read aloud in this class because the teacher doesn't believe we read at home. And so I wait, my stomach rolling, a lost ship at sea. We may be reading Tom Sawyer for babies, but Betsy's voice, as strong and supple as a dancer, hardly notices. She skips along the tops of passive verbs and flies over the adjectives and adverbs that stack and pile up like too many Playskool blocks. When Betsy finishes, the teacher looks over at me and her eyes widen just a bit.

"Cornelia, will you be reading today?" Her voice pitches too high, too singsong. Kids turn around. Everyone knows she gives no one else a choice.

I shake my head and look at my feet.


I am a shadow. I burrow deeper within myself and pray that if the other kids don't see me, they won't talk to me. I pretend I am the desk, the book, the floor, and we all expect less of me each day. I try not to lose myself, but the shame of always looking at my feet beats me deeper and deeper into the earth, planting me as surely as my mother planted gardenia bulbs one summer, facedown.


No one likes the new girl. Her name is Ruth. She wears the goofiest glasses I've ever seen. But I like her. I like the way she looks me in the eye when I tell her something. She is kind underneath those glasses and she smiles when I joke around. I want to tell her my whole life story in ten minutes, quicklike so the words tumble down, fast and furious, like my mother's promises. But I don't know how to begin, so we talk about books, which is the second-favorite reason why I like her so much.

We have just read Oliver Twist, me for the second time, and we are trying to figure out how Oliver survived on the gruel they made him eat at the workhouse. We made a pact to live on gruel for one day, cold and without sugar, but unlike Oliver, our portions are un-limited. Ruth brought Cream of Wheat. I brought oatmeal and it sits like cold clotted gravy on my tongue.

The girls in the lunch line point to us. The empty seats beside us are magnets. I concentrate on my spoon. I wonder if they'll notice our lunch. How disgusting. How odd. How much of a loser can you be, Cornelia Thornhill?

I stuff my bowl into my bag and push it into my backpack.

"Hey, we're not done," Ruth says. Her back is to the girls; she hasn't noticed. I nod toward them. She turns and hides her bowl in her notebook and stands up to leave. She is sturdier than I, more of an eggplant to my celery stick. I am so hungry.

"Oh, don't go on account of us," says Eleanor, the tallest of the three breezing toward us. She has had a perfect mouth from the beginning of time, one that never has—and never will—need braces. I stare absently into the crowded lunchroom.

"How are you today, Cornelia?" Eleanor takes her napkin, puts it on her lap, and ignores Ruth. I take my napkin and wipe my mouth.

I smile quickly and sip my milk.

"Did you get the last answer on the test?" Eleanor asks.

I shake my head. The other girls are snickering behind their napkins.

She tries again. "You didn't read again today. How come?"

I take another sip and shrug. Eleanor is waiting for me to answer. I take another sip and wipe my mouth. I start wiping my lips with each sip now, afraid something else horrible will fall out of my mouth. Seven, eight, nine times, I mop my mouth.

Eleanor laughs and then her friends laugh and when I can't listen anymore, I stand up and run out the side door of the cafeteria. The lunch aide hollers and the force of it follows me all the way to the street, where my tears mix with rain.

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