Published: Jun 16, 2011
Tell me you wouldn’t react as I did.
The name of the novel is “Alice Bliss.” That is, not surprisingly, the name of the 14-year-old main character, who lives with her parents and younger sister in a lovely town in upstate New York. And then, just before the Surge, her father’s National Guard unit is called up, and off he goes to Iraq.
Alice Bliss. Think she gets to keep that bliss? Really? You’d lay money down on that?
Although “Alice Bliss” is my favorite length for a book --- short --- you’re damn right I did not want to read this novel. But the Viking publicist wouldn’t stop working me. And then the author e-mailed me on another topic entirely. And so, riddled with guilt, I picked it up.
Here’s how it starts:
This is the first time Alice has been allowed to walk back to their campsite from the Kelp Shed alone. She is fourteen, barefoot, her sneakers tied together by the laces and slung across her shoulder so she can feel the soft sandy dust of the single track road between her toes. Her sister Ellie fell asleep halfway through the square dance, dropping from hyper excitement to unconscious in a flash. Her father carries Ellie draped over his shoulder and casually, or so it seems, her mother says, “Come home when the dance is done.”
In form, in style, this is everything that drives me nuts: leisurely, traditional storytelling, lovingly detailed, with characters as corny as Kansas.
I’m a big believer in dropping books that don’t grab me right off into the Goodwill bag a foot from my desk. But I didn’t. I read on to discover that Matt Bliss --- Alice’s father --- has a dream of a life. He likes to say that he "escaped from his career and got himself a job.” So he’s a carpenter, a Little League coach, a pitcher for a local softball team. And a gardener. “Alice helps. They grow the best corn and the best tomatoes in town.”
Dreadful stuff. And still I kept on reading. All too soon, Matt has to leave:
Outside the back window Alice can see the outlines of the garden, some of the furrows visible under the snow, stretching away in long thin rows. She can't imagine doing the garden without her dad. It's his thing; she's always thought of herself as his assistant at best. She can't imagine doing anything without her dad and she starts to feel like she can't breathe. And then she looks at him. Just looks at him as he watches the fire with muffin crumbs on his lap.
'I'll write to you.'
'I know, sweetheart.'
What happens next? Mine to know, yours to find out. But the key to the book, I think, is this: With her father gone, Alice comes alive. With that, I surrendered to this emotion-grinder of a book. And I suggest that you do the same. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]
This is Laura Harrington’s first novel. But she’s been a playwright, lyricist and librettist --- writing that requires a keen sense of structure --- and she has a drummer’s sense of rhythm and silence. Domestic life. Social life. Inner life. Harrington hits all the markers.
Even more, though, Harrington is old enough to remember a time when men went off to war and everybody noticed. Her father was a WWII navigator/bombardier stationed in France. Her brother loaded body bags in Vietnam. Iraq, as she notes and as we have painfully learned, is different in every possible way --- it's an enterprise so criminal at its core that we can’t stand to look at it. So we don’t.
You won’t see Iraq in these pages. Laura Harrington is too smart to go there. She stays with the people left behind, with home fires that burn dimly. Her book, in the end, really isn’t about this war. It’s about kids and fathers, about growing up with decent values and then being shaken hard and having to figure it out from there. It’s a very fine book, and if it rips your heart out, that’s not a bad thing.