Kathleen Glasgow follows her powerful heartbreaker of a debut, Girl in Pieces, with How to Make Friends with the Dark, the story of a teen girl set spiritually and literally adrift by the death of her single mother. Tiger Tolliver is suffocating in grief after her mother’s sudden passing, but must navigate the harsh realities of foster care in the midst of mourning. Here’s author Glasgow on how her own family history informed the book.
“It’s very hard to think of your parents as people. Full of bad checks and bad decisions, fistfights and broken hearts, all of it.”
That’s what Tiger Tolliver says in my new novel, How to Make Friends with the Dark, as she struggles to understand who her newly deceased mother was—Tiger’s mother always kept her past, and the identity of Tiger’s father, a closely guarded secret. In the book, just when Tiger is wrestling with grief and heartbreak, the truth about her mother’s life, which includes a half sister Tiger didn’t know existed, plops right into her lap.
I thought of my own mother the entire time I was writing this book. Like June Tolliver’s, my mother’s childhood was upended by tragedy: her mother died when she was seven. She and her brother were put into an orphanage. A baby sister was given to relatives. My mother and her brother never knew that sister. Her father remarried and began a different life. She and her brother spent lonely, uncertain years in an orphanage before being adopted by a nice couple.
My mother didn’t talk easily of those days. Truthfully, I didn’t understand what it all meant, because I was a kid, and she was my mom, and I couldn’t really fathom why her father didn’t keep her. Like, why would a parent do that?
I’m an adult now, with my own kids and my own life stories, and I can, on the face of it, understand how it happens that a parent gives up a child. Or that a parent can’t take care of a child. Or that a parent shouldn’t take care of a child. And I wrote those children into How to Make Friends With the Dark, too, the kids who’ve been abandoned, the kids whose lives are broken in half by parents who are abusive or struggle with addiction. Or both.
In the last years of my mother’s life, my oldest brother began using Ancestry.com in an attempt to sort out our family history. He left messages on the boards, asking if anyone had known a little girl named Mary Ellen who lived in New Jersey. Et cetera.
Et cetera. Et cetera.
My mother died. We went on.
And then, one day, my brother received an email.
It was my mother’s childhood best friend. She was hesitant at first, but then her memories poured out. She’d been looking for my mother, too. One day her friend Mary Ellen was there, and the next day she was being driven away with her brother and she never came back. My brother got email after email, with blurry black-and-white photos attached. The story took on life. Suddenly, my mother was no longer a shoebox full of memories that began at age ten but was a whole life. A little girl, four or five years old, sitting on a couch, clutching a plush bear. A little girl in a white dress, with her own mother next to her, squinting in the sun. My mother was a beautiful little girl.
Maybe your parents don’t tell you things about their past because they don’t want to hurt you, or scare you, or have you carry the weight of their pain. Just like sometimes you don’t tell them things because you don’t want them to worry or you don’t want to get in trouble.
Parents are people, too.
How to Make Friends with the Dark is on sale now.