3 New Novels About Kids Taking on Seriously Adult Responsibilities
Most people agree that kids should have time to just be kids, but that often doesn’t happen even at the best of times. Taking on adult roles and responsibilities too early can be damaging to a child’s health and psychological development. One main way kids grow up too fast is either by having to become a surrogate parent to their siblings — or a real parent when they’re only in their teens. The new novels in this week’s book club feature two stories of sibling groups that have to stick together due to the death of a parent and the absence of another, and one of a child forced to marry and bear a child, despite the potentially deadly consequences.
1. The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin ($27): The year is 2079, the world has tipped over into climate disaster, and Fiona Skinner, 102-year-old poet “of some renown,” holds her first public forum in a quarter-century. As she fields questions about her life and work from a large crowd, a young woman, named Luna after the last line of one of Skinner’s most popular poems, inquires about her namesake. It’s a question Fiona has always refused to answer: Who was the real Luna? For the first time in her very long life, Fiona begins to tell the answer, which starts in 1981, the day her young father died.
“Renee, the eldest of us, was eleven years old. Long, thin limbs, chestnut hair she wore in a single braid down her back. Even as a child, Renee exuded competence and self-containment, and at the funeral she was no different…She helped Noni with us, the younger ones, and tried not to look directly at the casket. After Renee came Caroline, who was eight, and then Joe, who was seven. Caroline was the fairest of us, with cheeks pink as bubble gum and hair that streaked blond in the summers. Joe was the boy, the only boy, with floppy hands and large feet and a stubborn right-side cowlick that he was forever flipping away from his face…And then came me. Fiona, the youngest, four years and eight months old on the day our father died.”
The time after their father’s death marks what Fiona calls “The Pause” — a years-long, unstructured break from normality during their mother’s depression and mourning that fosters a fierce sibling bond. Moving from their beloved yellow house into a small gray one in a worse area of town, the children are forced to take care of themselves as their mother retreats into her bedroom. Each of the children is altered from The Pause in varying ways, as some find success and some tragedy, one seeks to create the idyllic familial life that was ripped away from her, and another refuses to have children at all. It’s decades after those wild years when Fiona’s siblings must provide a united front for each other again — but will they?
2. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray ($26): “I was twelve, hugging my little brother, Joe, to my side. Hanging on to my younger sister Viola’s hand, with my baby sister, Lillian, on my hip. All of us Butler kids in pastels, pinstripes, and floral prints. The Easter clothes our mama had made for us just four months earlier. I squinted up into a blinding blue August sky, thinking, Mama will never be dust. I was thinking of women and water. ‘She’s not dust,’ I said to my brothers and sisters. ‘She’ll never be dust.’ Joe was pressing himself into my side, holding on to my leg. He was four years old then. To this day, he still clings a little. Viola, who’s always had her own mind with her own notion of things running through it, was six years old but aging fast around the eyes. Lillian wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t know what was happening to us.”
When Gray’s debut novel begins, Althea and her husband Proctor are currently in jail for defrauding the government and their peers. This has come as a shock to their community, where the couple is well-respected and considered honest and responsible. Althea has needed to be the responsible one all her life; at 12, her mother died, and her father, a preacher, was often either abusive or on long road trips. It fell to her to take care of her sisters and brother, with the help of the friend she would later marry. Since then, she’s been able to care for others, while having a hard time showing that care in easy affection.
Now, nervous Lillian is raising Althea’s twin teenage daughters under her roof, and Viola, a psychologist who works with her partner Eve, is coming to help out (and perhaps take a break from their relationship). Joe, the childhood source of much of Lillian’s anxiety, has used his personal magnetism to become a pastor himself, and his offer to care for the twins leaves her spiraling. The children who had to stick together are unmoored, and also have to decide whether to come closer or to fracture. Told in alternating narratives from Althea, Lillian, and Viola, the book reveals no shortage of either family dysfunction — or love.
3. The Familiars by Stacey Halls ($27): “The sickness came morning, noon and night, wringing me inside out. At the most, it was forty times a day; if it was twice, I felt lucky. Veins burst in my face, leaving delicate crimson stems around my eyes, the whites of which turned a demonic red. The awful taste in my throat would last for hours, sharp and choking as the blade of a knife. I couldn’t keep food down…the other three times I hadn’t been this ill. This time it felt like the child growing inside me was trying to escape through my throat instead of between my legs, like the others who announced their untimely arrivals in red rivers down my thighs. Their limp little forms were grotesque, and I watched them be wrapped like fresh loaves in linen.”
Fleetwood Shuttleworth was married to the Lord of Gawthorpe Hall, Richard Shuttleworth, at 13. Still a child herself, by 17, she has had three miscarriages and is pregnant once again. She is furious and frightened to discover a doctor’s letter advising her husband that, the next time she tries to bear a child, she will die. Unfortunately, her husband saw fit to ignore that letter in his desire for an heir, and the prevailing understanding is that another failure could result in her replacement. In her panic-induced wandering, she meets a mysterious woman in the woods on her property. Initially threatening to have her arrested for poaching, Fleetwood eventually becomes close to Alice Gray, who, as luck would have it, is a talented midwife. Alice assures Fleetwood that, with help, Fleetwood will see the child to term and will survive the pregnancy.
Luckily, the potions that Alice creates to help her friend stay healthy work wonders; unluckily, they draw some undue attention and suspicion. When Alice, along with several others, is accused of witchcraft and jailed, it is up to Fleetwood to find her and secure her release before she is executed. She must go against her husband’s wishes and leave her estate with only her mastiff Puck for company — perhaps a familiar of her own. Based on an actual historical event, the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, Halls’ novel deals with some unsettlingly relevant realities of the dangers of gender and class prejudice.
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