Winner 2003 Michigan Literary Fiction Award for original novel
"Written with precision and perception, this is a highly recommended work from a writer to watch."
"O'Connor . . . remains a consummate artist, true to her vision of a work that is bleak, truthful, and lacking any overt sentimental overtures. Her eye, a poet's eye, misses nothing."
". . . a touching odyssey of a girl poised between the emotional abyss and the reader's heart."
"A sensitive, often disquieting book that rings true throughout. . . . It's the skill of an accomplished writer that we see Faina's extraordinary spirit, while simultaneously experiencing her pain and despair. The end result is an uplifting, even inspiring book without any of the sugarcoating often found in stories like this."
-California Literary Review
Where No Gods Came is author Sheila O'Connor's compelling story of Faina McCoy, a young girl caught in a perilous scheme of elaborate lies created for her own harrowing system of survival. Enmeshed in a tangled family web, Faina is abruptly uprooted against her will from her father and finds herself half a continent away on the doorstep of a mother who abandoned her years before-but who can't live without Faina now. Alone, persecuted, and exploited, Faina must fend for herself as she searches for love and answers, navigating the streets of a strange city and forging bonds of feeling with liars and outlaws.
About the Author
Sheila O'Connor is the author of the novel-in-stories Tokens of Grace, and has received fellowships from the Bush Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Loft–McKnight, as well as the Tamarack Award for fiction. She teaches writing in the M.F.A. program at Hamline University.
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Read an Excerpt
Faina McCoy Where Is the World?
I go back to San Diego for my beginning, because I can’t shake from my mind the old life: hot sand and salt water outside my window, my father’s coffee left on the stove, the early morning silence of our house,my father always gone before I’m awake. And, in the last days, the stench of Wiley, fully clothed, asleep on our living room floor. No, I won’t go back to Wiley. Instead, I carry what I have to keep to tell my story: the clutter of my aqua bulletin board, the archery ribbon I won at the summer park program, my poster of Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy. A shoe box full of poems, words to songs I want to remember. Spiral notebooks I’ve been writing since fourth grade, full of margin doodles and daydreams I jotted down in class. A note with the initials of all the boys I liked in sixth grade, taped to the back of my underwear drawer. Next to my bed, my father’s old black phonograph, my green case of 45s, my first and only album.
I go back to Mission Boulevard, the sidewalks sizzling and edgy, as though the whole city is close to exploding. Girls with tangled hair panhandle; their bare bellies ›ash over the tops of their ‹lthy hip-hugger jeans. Navy men bristle and spit at the hippies who hand out flowers. Most of the shops along the boulevard have changed their names. The Place, Magic Carpet, Electric Avenue. They sell black lights, psychedelic posters, pipes for smoking grass. On the street corners, with their guitar cases propped open for donations, boys strum guitars and sing James Taylor, Cat Stevens or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. They sing offkey in high voices that sound nothing like the originals. What else have I saved? My daily visits to Keith’s Coffee Shop where I’ve eaten breakfast since first grade. The powdered sugar doughnut and carton of chocolate milk quickly slipped my way, the cracked vinyl of my usual stool sometimes cutting into my leg. My schoolbooks spilled out over the counter so Keith can quiz me to see if I’ve learned anything. Keith, tugging at his red goatee, “Let’s see what you know today, young lady.” The folded dollar bill I pass him at the last second.
I go back there, am there, sitting next to my father at the horse track. School is just out for the summer; it is June 11, my twelfth birthday. He hunches over the form and says he needs to win big so we can buy groceries.
“What about your paycheck?” I ask.
I’m anxious to go prowling, to hang out at the windows and wait for the rush of bets. “Stay still for once,” he tells me. In his mouth, the tip of his cigar is gnawed and wet. He shifts nervously in his chair, arches his back, stretches his arms behind his neck to crack his knuckles.
“Stop it,” I say. “You know that bugs me.”
Tense, his breath comes in shallow snorts. He falls into his old, distracted habit of tugging at the rim of his fishing cap. He’s worn this cap since I can remember, because it hides his high, bald forehead and the smooth patch at the top of his head. His belly bulges against the pearl snaps of his cowboy shirt. “Goddamnit. Goddamnit,” he says as his horse fades. “God damn it.” His bets never win. “Son of a bitch.” He slaps his palm against his forehead. “We gotta quit.”
Out in the hot sun of the parking lot, he pauses with his hand on the car door. It’s my birthday; he has something important to tell me. He hasn’t had a handful of luck in six months. There are people breathing down his neck for bad debts. He ›ops his heavy arm over my shoulder. “My back’s against the wall. You have no way of knowing.”
This has happened before, and we got past it. “You’ve still got your job at the marina. You can pay it off bit by bit.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“We can rent a cheaper place. You’re always complaining about the rent anyway.”
“This is different. It’s the real thing.”
Now he clears his throat, leans against the car, stares into the sun, tugs at his cap. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, won’t look at me. “Faina,” he says, “I got to get back this money. Swear to god, baby. Wiley’s got a gig lined up, some oil rig deal; it’s incredible money. The thing is, it’s pretty far.”
I listen to the wheeze of his chest. “How far?”
“Somewhere off the coast of Australia.”
“How the hell should I know? They fly you there; I don’t need a map.”
“You. But what about me?”
“I’ll send checks every month. That’s the glory of it. This deal is one stop short of hell; there’s not a damn place for me to spend the money. No gambling. I’ll just be ›oating on the ocean saving up money, sending some home for you to get by on. I’ll work off my debts. Come back for you as soon as I can. Maybe a year.”
“A year? Back where? Where will I be?”
“Well, that’s the good news,” he says, shuffling his feet. “You’ll be in Minnesota with your mother and Cammy.”
“Minnesota!” I scream.
I know Minnesota -- farms, fields, people milking cows in black rubber boots -— we studied it in geography. I don’t know my mother, don’t want to. I climb into the car, slam the door, refuse to speak. He touches my elbow, whispers, “Listen to me.”
I turn my back to him, stare out at the stretch of empty cars. My fisted hands tremble. Wiley. This is all Wiley.
“Faina, you’re acting ridiculous. It’s not forever. Besides, your mother isn’t feeling well; she needs to spend time with you, face it. And you could get to know Cammy, too. She’s your sister. Like it or not, these people are your family.”
The inside of my nose burns. My face is numb. “Forget it.”
“Fine,” he says. “You can live on the street.”
“Fine,” I say. “Great birthday.”
At home Wiley, lounging on our lawn chair, burps between swigs of beer. “Happy birthday, young lady.”
I flip him the finger, slam the screen door in his face. I despise Wiley for showing up in our lives and ruining everything. Before he came around, we were happy. It was just my dad and me. Sure my dad gambled some; he even had his nights when he stayed out drinking, but after Wiley, he was always at the track, coming home past midnight with different women. Wiley hooting and hollering until the morning. Wiley, with his long sideburns winding down his face, his brown teeth. Wiley telling my dad it was a waste of a life to work for a living.
I know my father will follow me with a string of apologies, so I stretch out on my bed and wait. I’ve lived in this house since I can remember and I love my room, my bookcase of wood and bricks he built me, my green flowered bedspread. Outside my window, the sound of the ocean, the bits of conversation from people passing on the beach, the words I turn into stories when I can’t sleep. This is what belongs to me.
I don’t know my mother; she gave me to my father when I was a baby. She didn’t feel up to raising more than Cammy. When I was little, she sent me a few cards, presents, an occasional picture. I used to dream about her, about what it would be like to live with her. I imagined her brushing my hair before school, taking me shopping for shoes, tucking me in at night. I used to watch other mothers with their kids to find out what sort of things I was missing. But then, after awhile, when people asked, I just told them she’d died. It saved me a long story.
Out on the front lawn, my father and Wiley are arguing. I crouch under my bedroom window and wait for my father to refuse Wiley’s oil rig scheme.
“It’s your big break,” Wiley says. “Think of the money. Besides, you can see for yourself she’s getting beyond you. A girl her age needs a mother.”
“You don’t know her mother. I don’t think Lenore would be much help to anybody.”
“That’s not your problem, Bobby. You’ve done your time. Let her old lady pick up some of the slack.”
“She doesn’t want to go.”
“For Christ’s sake, Faina’s twelve. You don’t ask a kid that age what they want to do.”
“Why the cold feet now? We’re all signed up. You can’t stay here, not with the money you owe. You think she’d be safe?”
“Liar. You don’t care what happens to me,” I scream, then slam down the window so hard the glass rattles.
My father shakes his head at me, buries his face in his hands. Wiley heaves his body out of the lawn chair, pats my father on the back and leaves.
When the clatter of Wiley’s car finally fades down the alley, my father comes inside, knocks twice on my bedroom door and walks over to me.
“I’m looking for the birthday girl. I’ve got something for you, honey.”
“I don’t want it.”
He hands me a small package with ballerina wrapping and a white bow. It’s a blank book with a cover marbled like Easter eggs.
“I thought you could use this for your stories. Maybe a kind of diary. Who knows. Something to put down your thoughts while you’re away from me.”
I fall into his chest and for the first time in a long time, I’m crying.
“You’re not really going? How could you decide something like this without asking me?”
“It’s so beyond us, honey. It’s so beyond us.”
Over and over again, he kisses the top of my head. I don’t feel his tears drip on my hair, but I feel his chest and I know he’s crying.
By the end of the week, a moving-sale sign is taped to our front porch; our two bags are packed and hidden in the hall closet. The things we’ll take. My father’s suitcase is small. He’s packed only the few clothes he’ll need for work on the oil rig, the wooden box I carved and painted for him last Father’s Day, his leather shaving kit, pictures of me in an old Christmas-card envelope. My duffel bag is stuffed full of my clothes, a new gray sweatshirt jacket for Minnesota weather, all new underwear including the bra he asked the saleslady to pick out for me, a new toothbrush, a hairbrush and, of course, the diary. The rest of my keepsakes are loaded into a big cardboard box marked FAINA MCCOY and stored away in a locker somewhere near Chula Vista.
Everything else we own is priced with ragged pieces of masking tape. People rummage through our house, carry out the toys and games I’ve outgrown: Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, my Etch-a-Sketch. All that goes for a quarter apiece. The customers will buy anything: hangers, my chipped ceramic poodle bank, ice-cube trays, bamboo shades. Some arrive in beat-up trucks to haul out my bed, our couch, my bookcase. I sit at a card table and collect the money. Perched on an empty beer case, I add up the items, count out the change. When they want to bargain, I point them toward my father, who always says, “Have at it.” Although it seems he’s letting go too easily, I can’t blame him. It’s hard to haggle over the price of a torn lampshade. When the house is nearly empty, I hand him the shoe box of money, our lives worth a grand total of $327.
“Don’t knock it,” he says. “It’s your plane ticket.”
“I’m going to Keith’s,” I say, banging the screen door closed behind me. I don’t want to join my dad and Wiley for their farewell celebration -- cold beer and beef jerky on the front porch.
At this time of night, only a few customers straggle into Keith’s place.
“Isn’t it a little late for breakfast?” Keith jokes. “I saved you your usual. Too busy with the sale to stop by?” He slides the powdered sugar doughnut over the counter toward me. “I hope you eat better than this in Minnesota.”
“We sold most everything.” The doughnut sticks in my throat like paste. “Today’s my last day.”
Keith wipes his damp rag over the clean counter. He unscrews the lids from the half-empty ketchup bottles and refills them. “It’ll be good to see your mother and sister again. What’s her name?”
“Yeah, I knew it was something unusual. Your folks really had a thing for original names.”
I shrug my shoulders, keep chewing. As long as my mouth is full I can’t answer. Keith leans on the counter in front of me, lifts his pouch of tobacco and rolling papers out of his apron pocket. He sprinkles a dash of tobacco along the crease. “Your sister will probably take you under her wing.”
“Yeah.” To me, Cammy has always been just a tiny square of school picture, a snapshot who always appeared older and prettier than me. “A regular blonde beauty,” my father called her. This year she was nothing, not even a Christmas card, and I was secretly happy. I had been wanting to lose her for a long time, to get rid of the ghost who stole my father’s loyalty. “Why should she care about us?” I told him. “We’re hardly even her family.”
Cammy and my mother. My father and me. “That’s the court order,” he always said. “That’s the way it has to be.” From what I knew of it, we left them in Minnesota when I was a baby, or rather, my mother left me. My father moved the two of us to California so he could have a chance at acting, but he ended up in San Diego repairing boat engines. This is the life I know, San Diego. Not my mother, not Cammy, just the waves crashing me to sleep, the narrow back streets, the stray cats slinking down the alley, Keith.
“I had a friend,” Keith says, leaning on the counter, blowing smoke rings, “who made great money on an oil rig. There’s no doubt about it, it’s good work if you can get it. Your dad is doing the right thing. In the old days, parents left home all the time to make money for their family. This is nothing new. You’ll come back in a year, all grown-up and talking with one of those midwestern accents; we’ll just be sitting here, drinking the same cup of coffee, and you’ll wonder why you were ever sad to leave.” Keith brushes the hair away from my eyes. “Write to me.”
He prints his address on a paper napkin. I pass him the folded dollar bill like I’ve done every day since first grade. “Not today. This one’s on me.”
For the last time, I close the door to Keith’s and listen to the bell ring.
Walking home I try to memorize the back streets: flower baskets in full bloom, surfboards stacked against the gray cottages, the smoky smell of charcoal and burgers grilling, the sand scraping under my sandals.
I welcome the lull of evening, the sun almost swallowed by water. This is where I belong, I repeat to myself. I live here. I can’t imagine a life far away, I can’t imagine a life without my father.
Back at our house, I curl into a ball on my bedroom floor, bunch my father’s jacket into a pillow for my head. The walls are bare except for the gray stains where the pictures used to hang. I try to float away on the waves, let them rock me into dreams, but I can’t sleep. I know my father is sitting on the front steps smoking; through the open window, I can hear him sigh. He’s waiting to talk to me, to settle this uneasy silence we’ve lived in since my birthday.
“Come on out,” he says, when he discovers me standing at the screen door. “You’re getting too old to sleep in a T-shirt. Get a nightgown in Minneapolis with some of the money.”
“Where’s your good friend Wiley?”
“Oh, he’s out enjoying civilization for the last time. This isn’t his fault, Faina. If you’re looking to blame someone, blame me.”
“What about a truce for our last night? This isn’t the way you want to leave.”
“Yes, it is.”
“God, you’re a stubborn kid.” He yanks me down onto his lap, like he used to do when I was little, wraps me up in the warm circle of his arms.
I give in, settle against his body, my back resting on his fat stomach.
“Don’t forget about that book I gave you. I was hoping you’d write down your days for me.”
I touch my chest. The key to the diary is hidden there, close to my heart, hanging from a purple ribbon under my shirt. “Maybe. Would you do the same for me?”
“Me?” he laughs. “Jesus, Faina, I can hardly sign a check. You’re the one with all the brains.”
“I don’t want to go,” I remind him, though I know nothing I say now will change his mind.
Ahead of us there is only the endless flat land of ocean and dark sky leading to nothing. After San Diego, where is the world?
“Is Minneapolis near the ocean?” I ask.
He laughs again. “That goes to show you don’t know everything.”
“You’ll be on the ocean, won’t you?”
When I see him in my mind, I will picture him straight ahead of me, out our old front door, another mysterious ship in the distance.
“It’ll go fast. You’ll see.” He presses his cheek against my head; I lean my weight into the nest of his body. Away from him, from here, will I disappear? After San Diego, where is the world?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a good book with grittier than standard charactors. It was a good read.
This book is amazing, fantastic, superb, and real. I could not put it down. This is a MUST READ! I can't put into words how much I loved this book. I'm begging Ms. O'Connor for a sequel!
Sheila O'Connor's book was a hard one to put down. The first time I opened the book, I read 132 pages at one sitting, neglecting my piles of homework due for the following day! I really enjoy books where the point of view changes- this is the best I've ever read. One feels the fierce struggle between Faina, Cammy, and Lenore so deeply, it's like you are there experiencing it with them. Luckily, I've had the privilege of learning from Ms. O'Connor- I enrolled in one of her creative writing classes at my college. I'm looking forward to reading more of her books. Keep up the good work, Sheila!
I want the author to tell me more. Our book club read this and was lucky enough to meet with the author. Sheila O'Conor's story is one that is hard to put down and yet, I didn't want it to end. It's not a 'happy' story but it is a wonderful book. There are so many questions left unanswered once the reader is engaged in the lives of the characters, especially Faina. The message is one of a child's love for her parents and I know she will be resilient enough to survive her next few years. I hope Sheila will give us some of the details and let us know that Faina is well.
I love stories of survival and this one fits right in. There were times while reading this book where I couldn't believe the misery of the situation, but the author portrays childhood isolation (within a dysfunctional home) perfectly. It is a sad truth that so many children grow up as mini-adults. Poignantly written and well worth the time.
Shelia O'Connor creates a world that once you start reading, you become a part of. You don't want to leave Faina or her 'family.' O'Connor weaves a world of sadness and hope within one novel. I recommend this to the strongest of hearts.
I couldn't book this book down. Faina's character is so touching, you just want to hug her and make it all better. I haven't had a story touch me like this in a long time.
This is one of the few books that made me want to keep reading the story after I finished the book. Ms. O'Connor knows how to write!!!
Ms. O'Connors technique of telling the story from different points of view is not a new technique. Her skill, however is unsurpassed. At no time did I tell myself, 'Oh, yeah, now it's the dad talking.' The changes are subtle, vital, but unintrusive. I am now judging everything else I read by 'Where No Gods Came' and nothing is coming up to its level. It is an incredible book. Faina will live with you for a long, long time.
The novel is so realistic and exposes what never gets said, sometimes not read. It is apparent that only this Author has read and listened to these children's daily realities in their world. Things never discussed, alcholic Mothers, poverty, families existing with one parent, much of our world today. As in real life, only the child is left to navigate through the debris. Fantastic, realistic and much should be learned through this novel. Children are our future,all of their struggles begin someplace, somewhere.
This was a beautiful read, from beginning to end. The people--characters, yes, but such fully realized *people*--are compelling and real and full of spirit. Such a great novel.
Wow, what a story. I feel like I just lived through the chaos that was the life of Faina (The protagonist). I'm drained. This was the most visual story I have read in ages--very powerful. A story of survival against all odds.