CM . . . .
Volume V Number 10 . . . . January 15, 1999
"So here we are, eh, Mama Gio?" I said, just to hear my own voice in the quiet store. She didn't stir. ... I turned back to the front of the store, smiling , even though nothing was funny. "I can't talk to anyone except an old lady who's asleep, who wouldn't understand me even if she weren't. ...This is my screwed-up life. I'm trying really hard to hold it all together, and sometimes I think I'm almost making it. I'm not a loser, no matter what some people might think. I've got this job, and I've got a friend ... for the first time in my life. And I'm doing okay at school. ... But my mother's in the psychiatric ward in the hospital. I don't know when she's coming home, and when she does, what she's going to be like. And then there's B: My aunt's boyfriend. I can't even say his name out loud. That's how much he scares me. And he's coming home too. ... Now what, Mama Gio? Now what?"Mercy's birds come in two kinds. There are the pigeons which she loved to feed - until the day one perched on her shoulder and got its claws tangled in her hair. By transference, she associates this action with the unwelcome attentions of her aunt's boyfriend, and she immediately cuts her hair and dyes it black, as if she could thereby cut the threat of "B"'s return from her life. Then there are the flock of tea-leaf birds in her cup at her sixteenth-birthday party that this same aunt says mean "very good luck." These conflicting themes run through the book, but the passage quoted above, with its plus and minus balances, is, in fact, the turning point of the story. Mercy's mother is indeed getting better, enough so that she manages to swallow the pride and bitterness of a lifetime and make contact with her own mother for the first time since she left home, and she does it because she feels that Mercy needs her grandmother. This unselfish move towards reconciliation is the first step towards recovery for the entire family. Grandma arrives just at the right moment, and her affirming presence gives Mercy the courage to tell her aunt how much B frightens her, and also to stand up against B's advances when she unexpectedly finds herself alone with him.
The opening chapter of this book gave me a "Oh-dear!-Another-book-on-child-abuse!" feelings, but I was pleased to find that I was wrong. It is not just "another book" about anything - it is a fine and individual story of a plucky survivor who manages to hold her family together through her mother's debilitating depression and her aunt's increasingly heavy drinking bouts. Having Grandma turn up (like the Queen of Cups in Mercy's aunt's readings of the tarot cards) makes her triumph over adversity more realistic - she is, after all, only sixteen - and also gives the hope that the improvements in the household may not disappear into the bottomless pit of good intentions unfulfilled.
One of Mercy's interests, which she shares with her mother - and me! - is words, their meanings and structures. So I consider it an added bonus that readers should finish the book having absorbed the difference between "cosmology" and "cosmetology," "antonyms" and "oxymorons." Vocabulary without pain!
Mary Thomas is presently on leave from the Winnipeg School Division No.1, living in Oxford and enjoying the prospect of a part-time job in the library of Oxford Brookes University.
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