Make Believe: A Novel

Make Believe: A Novel

by Joanna Scott
Make Believe: A Novel

Make Believe: A Novel

by Joanna Scott


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When four-year-old Bo is orphaned in the car accident that kills his mother, he becomes the focus of a fierce custody struggle and flees into himself — away from the sea of strangers — where he inhabits an eerie inner landscape.

The world of "make believe" into which we are drawn in this remarkable novel — hailed for both its lyrical prose and its profound dramatic and emotional intensity — is the world of four-year-old Bo, cast adrift in a sea of strangers as he becomes the focus of a fierce custody battle between two sets of grandparents, one black and one white.

"This is a compelling story that will leave readers haunted by Scott's powerful moral vision."-Publishers' Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316776660
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 02/20/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Joanna Scott is the author of eleven books, including The Manikin, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Various Antidotes and Arrogance, which were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Awards; and the critically acclaimed Make Believe, Tourmaline, Liberation, and Follow Me. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Award.

Read an Excerpt

" Chapter 1
Maybe he fell and that's why he was hurting and dangling upside down like a pair of jeans on the wash line. He hurt and his face was wet with warm milk that got sticky as it cooled. But it smelled more like swamp mud than milk. Mud, then. It didn't taste like mud. His lips were covered with it, and his tongue caught what dribbled up from his chin. Sour juice straight from his mama's green bottle? He'd always wondered what was in her green bottle. Sour mudjuice, and now he'd turned the world upside down and made a real mess, such a bad boy, he hadn't meant to, just as he hadn't really meant to climb out of the grocery cart back at the store. It was his fault, everything was his fault, even the cage full of pink and blue bunnies at the end of the aisle. The bunnies were put there to tempt little kids, and he was a little kid, so the bunnies were his fault. Get your goddamn ass down! She couldn't have been madder back at the store. But she always got as mad as she could be, never just a little mad. He had cried, and that was his fault, too. He'd cried because if she were really that mad she might have left him sitting on his ass in the grocery cart and walked away. If she ever left him it would be his fault. Please don't go! He hadn't meant to do whatever he'd done and if only she'd give him the chance he would take it back, make it up, tell her whatever she wanted to hear!
Now up was down, down was up. He cried because his belly hurt and because his mama had strung him up like a pair of jeans and left him hanging there. Just left him hanging there while she slipped off -
To bum a smoke?
To search for hundred-dollar bills stuck to the wet road, hoping that she'd find a fortune if only she kept on looking?
Or maybe she'd gone off to search for Bo.
Look at him hanging there, a small, helpless child dangling upside down, strapped to the seat by the lap belt. And how quietly it had all happened. You'd think there would have been clanking, clashing, squealing, an explosion of sound. Instead they'd spun around and around, the earth had lurched with a series of dull thuds like the thuds Bo made when he slid under his mama's bed and kicked the mattress, glass burst into stars, and metal bubbled with a noise that reminded him of secret laughter. And then the quiet of night when everyone else was asleep and he lay awake on his own bed wishing he had the courage to get up and go outside and roam the dark streets.
Mama's little Hobo, she liked to call him, because he'd wander out the door in his bare feet, down the front porch steps and up the sidewalk, collecting bottle caps and pinecones along the way. Sometimes when he was searching the curb for treasures a car would pull alongside him, and he'd see a shiny brown boy staring back from the hubcap. He wouldn't answer when the driver called, "Hey, kid, anybody watching you?" Instead, he'd throw a handful of gravel at the car, and the driver would drive away.
Don't you ever go off with a stranger, his mama had said too many times to count, and though he didn't understand what a stranger was, he did sense that when he wandered up the street he'd better keep to himself. He didn't mind if neighborhood kids joined him, unless they tried to steal his treasures - then Bo would scream and his mama would eventually appear. He'd scream as loud as he could, and she'd hang up the phone or turn off the TV and come fetch him, slapping him hard on the side of his head and saying, Get on home! or scooping him up in her arms, covering him with kisses while she sang a song about her sweet little Hobo, Ho-bo-bo!
Or else she'd say, You're just a baby, for God's sakes!
Straight ahead a line of light cut into the darkness, and he wondered if he'd taken the flashlight from the kitchen drawer to play with it. Maybe that's why his mama was so mad. He'd done something terrible, that was for sure. Maybe he'd pulled the place mat off the table and brought her plate and glass crashing to the floor - that was something he'd always wanted to do! If he'd actually done it, well, that would make her plenty mad. Oh, what a bad boy, bad! But it was about time for her to get over being angry, please. Time for kisses, please! He called, "Mama mama mama mama mama," kept calling her until his mouth was too tired to work, then stopped and listened for her answer.
He became aware of a new sound, or an old sound that he hadn't noticed before. Tickatickatickatickaticka. It was the sound of waiting. Tickatickatickatickaticka. It was the sound of the car when they were waiting to turn right or left, and Bo could almost imitate it with his tongue: tahdatahdatahdatahdatah. The sound made him feel better about waiting, made him realize how tired he was, and wouldn't Mama be happy if he went to sleep without a fuss! He narrowed his eyes but didn't close them, since he found some comfort in the beam of light shining across the wet road. The light, the waiting sound, the rain . . . he let himself drift, felt the scare diminishing as he thought of things he knew perfectly well. Six dots on a ladybug mean the ladybug is six years old, salt tastes salty, blue is neither red nor green, a tower is fun to knock over, snow is cold like a sticker is sticky like now is right now, Gran and Pop live on Sycamore Street and Gran sings, "A B C D E F G," sings, "H I J K L M N O P," sings while she makes pancakes, he likes peanut butter on pancakes but he doesn't like green beans or hamburgers or eggs.
What kind of kid won't eat hamburgers?
No no no no no!
Just a bite, sweetpie. One big bite for your ole grandma, and you can have a Fudgsicle for dessert. You can have two Fudgsicles! See, I can't help but spoil my babies, and they know they can do just as they please. Ma, says Kamon, here's my girlfriend Jenny, don't mind that she's white, okay? So he goes out two months before his son is born and gets himself killed on the street. I didn't even have time to understand what I was missing when Jenny says, Mrs. Gilbert, I got a mall job so can you watch Bo? Sure, I say, and Sam and I feed him Fudgsicles for lunch and dinner and let him watch television till he falls asleep on my lap, and when Jenny comes by after work she's so tired she can hardly stand, but still she insists on stopping first at the grocery store for her carton of cigarettes and whatever else, powder donuts for the morning, a quart of milk, she's so tired she can hardly drive, still she drives like somebody's chasing her, twice the limit, drives like there's no tomorrow, and all I can say to her is, one of these days, girl, one of these days.
A B C.
A B C.
A B C.
She was stuck in her song, and Bo wanted to give her a pinch to help her along. But he couldn't move his arms because he was shrinking toward the center of himself so there was hardly space left inside him to draw in air, hardly room in his belly for the soft rain, the night, the tickatickaticka and his grandma's song.
A B C.
A B C.
Why, it wasn't Gran singing at all, it was the TV, and Mama had turned the volume up in order to hear the band music better, she'd started to dance along with the TV dancers and like them spun around and around so fast Bo could only see a blur of color, the turquoise streaks of her blouse and jeans, around and around like the fan that blew hot air into her bedroom all summer long.
A B C.
A B-
Someone, Pop maybe, had turned the TV off, so Mama stopped dancing, but by then she'd danced herself to nothing, and when Bo looked for her he saw only the upside-down world glistening in the flashlight beam.
Voices, the murmur of voices behind a closed door, voices of grown-ups deciding whether or not he should be punished for making a mess, then a tap-tap on the window beside him, the delicate crinkle of glass, and a hand reached in to yank up the handle on his door.
"We got a kid here!"
Tugging, grunting, creak of yielding metal, and Bo was eye to eye with the upside-down face of a stranger.
"We got a kid! Take it easy little fella we got you we're gonna get you out we're gonna give me a hand there yeah the collar first we're gonna help if you what's taking so long with that goddamn sneaker I see shit a lady's sneaker shit oh shit give me that now take it easy take it easy here you go little man."
A stranger. Never go nowhere with a stranger! As soon as he could he'd start kicking and screaming and his mama would come to find out what was wrong. Wouldn't she be sorry when she saw her sweet Bo in the arms of a stranger, arms like chains of a huge crane lowering him, lowering his aching body, turning him right-side up and settling him back upon a board as though he were going to be made into a house, nailed into the frame of a great big house.
With the sky back in its proper place above him, he decided to scream. He shut his eyes, started flailing and stamping the air with his heels but gave that up because they'd taped him to the board and he couldn't move, though he kept on screaming as loud as he could, drowned out the voices of the strangers with his own voice while he waited to smell his mama's lemon and cigarette smell - only when he smelled her close to him would he open his eyes again. Where was she? He knew that what could happen was always worse than what he could imagine, and for that reason he never wandered farther than calling distance away from home. Never, never had he called for his mama and she hadn't come - except when he was staying with Gran and Pop, and then one of them would come instead of Mama, which pleased Bo to no end, for they'd bribe him to stop crying with chocolate kisses and Fudgsicles and sometimes even a trip to the toy store. No, he wouldn't mind at all if Gran or Pop showed up right now instead of Mama. Or even Uncle Alcinder or Aunt Merry or Ashley who lived with her five kids in the other side of the house or their next-door neighbors Pat and Sonny or Mrs. Kelper across the street. Anybody who was not a stranger would do just fine.
"Come on, settle down there."
"Get him in, let's go!"
Now he was a key being fit into the lock of a door, slid in, turned, click.
"Can you tell me where you hurt? Does it hurt when I press here? Here? Now you're going to feel a squeeze on your arm. You'll feel this band get tight and then it will get loose. We want to help you is all. Can you tell me your name? Don't you have a name?"
He heard a door shut, like the door to the freezer in Gran's pantry, and he gave up screaming, worked instead to catch his breath. As long as he didn't open his eyes he wouldn't have to see the faces of strangers. These people were definitely strangers, and it was becoming obvious why they should be avoided. Their voices were as sweet as pudding, but their hands were poisonous snakes. So much made sense after the upside-down confusion: whatever had happened to him back there happened because of these strangers. They wanted to get at him and so had hurt him, then tried to comfort him, and now that they'd succeeded in separating him from his mama the hurt would only get worse. They squeezed and pressed and stabbed him in his elbow with pins, pricked the back of one hand and then the other, swore and cooed - "Damn it what a good brave boy you are so ah for Christ's sake come on this kid has no veins" - still trying to pretend that they were going to help him when in fact they were going to do those things that couldn't be named and so couldn't be imagined, actions as awful and mysterious as the sea creatures living at the bottom of the ocean.
Mama's sweet Hobo was sinking into the realm of the unimaginable, sinking to a place beyond calling distance, beyond help. It had to be just so - everything that happened to him now happened for a reason beyond his control, and Bo understood that it would be useless to resist. An unfamiliar calm replaced the fear. It was easy to surrender, to give up hope of ever again seeing anyone he knew and to get used to this bright-dark world, where whirs and clicks signaled a forward motion so smooth it was almost unnoticeable, where voices said one thing and hands did another, where no one knew his name, where he couldn't have told his name even if he'd wanted to, for after all that had happened he'd completely forgotten how to speak.
Welcome to the world of strangers, Bo. Welcome to the bottom of the sea.
They traveled along Route 62 at an even fifty miles per hour, lights churning, sirens silent except for a short clamor of sound at every intersection. A rabbit hunched in a nearby ditch, waiting for the cold drops of light to fall like hail upon its head. Budding forsythia scratched at a stone wall. A raccoon in a driveway caught the glare in its eyes and darted behind a parked car. A line of poplars watched from the edge of a small field, surprised by nothing.
Above the treetops to the north, the darkness was fringed with the city's glow, and at the intersection with Route 103 the ambulance turned right and continued steadily in this direction, pulled like a splinter of iron toward a magnet. Cars slowed obediently and moved to the right lane. A dog on the porch of a decrepit farmhouse started barking. Behind the plate glass of a diner, a waitress with no one to serve looked up from her magazine, glanced at the clock, and continued reading. The ambulance drove on through the drizzle past a nursery, a gas station, a lot full of new tractors and backhoes, a warehouse, a stretch of freshly plowed fields, a block of brick ranch houses, another stretch of fields, more houses, a kennel, an old barn with a side wall collapsed, an office building, a parking lot, a stretch of woods and a playground. As the ambulance approached a traffic light at the bottom of a hill it slowed again, announcing its presence with a wail, and turned left, climbing up a ramp onto a highway, where it settled into its motion like a canoe on a river, drifting toward the left lane while other cars veered away from it. After five miles or so the ambulance moved to the right again, sliding down the ramp of the next exit as though down a small cataract, slowing, turning left and then right beyond the overpass, right at the next light, left and left and right and left in a series of short, sharp turns, traveling straight on for the last stretch along the avenue that bordered the huge parking lots of the hospital, turning right down a side road, right again into the drive of the emergency department, and coming to a halt at last.
The lights stopped spinning, and the engine clicked to silence. Nothing moved; no activity interrupted the stillness. For the briefest of moments, before the paramedic flung open the rear doors, the scene was made up of concrete, glass, and metal, without a living thing in sight.
(c) 2000 by Joanna Scott"

Reading Group Guide

1. "Erma's first thought when she heard the news was not thank God or poor Jenny but Now that white girl is gone Bo is mine to raise properly" (page 38). Do you think it was reasonable for Erma to assume that she would have custody of Bo?

2. People often say that a sense of humor is what they value most in a life partner. Marge notes that "Eddie rarely laughed" (page 41). And yet she seems to consider him an ideal mate. Why?

3. Why is Jenny, at the tender age of sixteen, so ready and eager to have a baby? Do you think she's emotionally prepared for moth-erhood?

4. Bo thinks, "Surely Gran and Pop had always been as old as they were now, no older, no younger" (page 79). To what extent do you consider this a childish perception? Aren't there times when all of us, caught up in our present lives, lose sight of the constancy of change?

5. Ann urges Marge to think of Bo "like a cutting from one of your rosebushes, you know, transplanted, and if he doesn't take, if we're not right for him, then we bring him back, okay?" (page 103). Do you think Marge is ever actually willing to let Bo leave?

6. Do you agree with Judge Wright's decision in Gantz v. Gilbert? What is the significance of the thriller that Judge Wright reads several months before he issues his decision? Describe how reading that novel influenced him.

7. Judge Wright seems to believe that the maternal bond is always stronger than a child's bond with his father. Do you agree? 8. How important is the issue of race in Make Believe? Do you consider it central to the novel's plot or only marginal? Discuss scenes in which characters in the novel deal with the issue of race head-on, such as when Kamon encounters the white women at McDonald's (page 146).

9. Kamon Gilbert dies harboring a single wish (page 158). What do you think his wish might have been?

10. Discuss the role of fantasy in the lives of the novel's principal characters. Why do you think Joanna Scott chose to call this novel Make Believe?

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