Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue is the one I read back at the end of April. At the time, it didn’t really stand out for me. In fact, as I’m finally writing about it, I’m having to refresh my memory on the details; I can remember my reactions and how it made me feel, but I can’t remember character names. The story opens with Tillie Harris about to give birth to her first child a month early while nothing is ready and everything feels in disarray. But most of the story is set in the 1970s, seen through flashbacks and the eyes of eight-year-old Tillie. Her father is the rigid military type, contrasting to her dreamy, somewhat maniacal mother who doesn’t fit into the mold of the military family. We as the reader see the gradual mental breakdown of Tillie’s mother though Tillie, as a child, doesn’t fully understand what she’s witnessing and experiencing. When her mother suddenly disappears and no one will tell her where she is, Tillie is left to navigate her experiences and feelings without her main source of stability.
This story tried to address a lot in its pages—family relationships, mental health issues, societal norms and expectations, military life, desegregation, feminism. My issue wasn’t with any of that (though that is a lot to tackle!), it’s that I never really found it believable. There is a major plot point (that I am not going to spoil), but when you reach that point, you will probably say, “….wait, what?” I generally follow the idea that children are much smarter than adults give them credit for, and I felt that this story was just not giving children any credit. More on this in a minute…
The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley was one from my ‘to-read’ list because I was really intrigued by the Icelandic setting. In the story, Freya grew up with her mother in the suburbs of Connecticut, but her world expanded once they started visiting family every summer in Gimli, a small Canadian village settled by Icelandic immigrants. Here, Freya learns about her family’s rich Icelandic history and meets her Aunt Birdie. Aunt Birdie is quite an anomaly to Freya; she is exotic and interesting and outspoken and obsessive and loving but also moody and dark and downright mean. But Freya is hooked. After a terrific scandal signaling Birdie’s serious spiral into bipolar disorder, Freya tries to forget all about her Icelandic past and does so for the next fifteen years. Once she stumbles upon the hints of a family secret, though, she delves into the mystery of uncovering the past she’s tried to forget.
This book is filled with the language, culture, and history of Iceland—from semi-lengthy explanations of the complexity of the language to rich, detailed descriptions of geography. While I don’t think the overall plot of the story was dependent on its environment, the detail with which Sunley connected the characters to their culture and history made for a richer story. What struck me most about Freya’s reaction to the events in her life was that she wasn’t entirely blind to them; she exhibited denial more than anything else…
…Which gets me back to how The Tricking of Freya made me rethink Up From the Blue a bit. Or at least look at the bigger issue of a child versus adult perspective. I do generally believe that children understand what is going on around them most of the time. However, maybe the issue is not whether they understand but whether they understand the complexities? Or whether they exhibit a higher level of denial? Or whether they have the maturity to give it a second thought in the first place…to just care at all.
Regardless, both of these books had interesting, conflicted characters trying to make peace with their past, and these were probably questions they were asking themselves.