MacDonald (Bonds of Love & Blood, 2018, etc.) returns with tangled tales of relatives, friends, and lovers.
In “A Body of Water,” two childhood friends steal away from their spouses for a clandestine backwoods trip. In “Mongoose,” a woman visits her ailing father and finds a new perspective on their strained relationship during conversations with her stepmother; this story establishes a theme, as “Long Time, No See,” “Year by Year,” and “The Blue Caboose” also deal with elderly parents. In the compelling “Tito’s Descent,” the narrator is an older man who’s being interviewed for a documentary; he recounts a formative journey into a cave with fellow members of the “Torreblanca Speleological Society.” They discover cave paintings on “an overhanging rock,” and later, the narrator trips and falls, and his friend, Tito, helps him up and pulls him close, prompting another discovery: “The warmth of another human being, the sideways pressure of his hip,…made me feel as if we humans were designed, on a primitive level, to connect with one another not just with words, but with the intimacy of touch.” “Body Language” follows a woman’s journey from her home in Mexico to San Diego in search of answers about her brother’s death. The story’s title comes from a scene in which the narrator observes people in a Social Security office: “Their body language tells me that life has beaten them down and left them with only their trembling anxiety.” Like this narrator, MacDonald reads the room in each story and sees not just the postures and worn shoes of their inhabitants, but also their inner states. Throughout this collection, she builds many such rooms for her readers to survey, populated by people whose body language speaks volumes. The fictional worlds are fully fleshed-out, and the stories’ wide-ranging premises and subtle endings yield a sense of wonder.
A well-wrought collection that finds moments of transcendence in the personal quests of its characters.
Page count: 215pp
Publisher: Grand Canyon Press
Review Posted Online: Dec. 31, 2019
A memoir examines the complex psychological impact of adoption.
MacDonald was born in 1945. Her biological mother was 16 years old and unmarried. The baby was put up for adoption, and, at 6 weeks of age, the author became the daughter of Rex and Lorene Benham. The moment she joined the Benham family, she writes, was the beginning of her “origin story.” Sixteen years later, history would repeat itself when MacDonald found herself entering the Phoenix Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. She had hoped to keep the baby and marry her boyfriend, John. But they were underage; his father was against the marriage; and John wanted to go to West Point the following year. Plus, MacDonald knew that her mother was upset about the pregnancy. In January 1962, the author gave birth to her son. She saw him for only a moment. It would be 21 years before they would meet. John and MacDonald did in fact marry two years later. They ultimately had four children, in addition to the one she surrendered. The author is in a unique position to discuss the trauma of adoption from two sides—as an adoptee who always felt she didn’t belong and as a mother who endured the initial anguish of giving up her baby and the many years of worrying if he was well or even alive. The articulate narrative includes sections that review MacDonald’s childhood and teenage years and some vivid scenes depicting her anger and despair while at the Crittenton Home. But it is decidedly focused on the displacement that author Nancy Newton Verrier wrote about in her book The Primal Wound. Some therapists explain that this wound is the psychological pain adopted infants feel when they are denied physical contact with the women with whom they have established neurological and biochemical connections. MacDonald describes it more viscerally as a wound that leaves a permanent scar: “Adoption creates a deep scratch on the LP of the soul. Every time the record revolves, the needle drops into that scratch.”
A touching personal account of a journey to understanding and acceptance; informative and unsettling.
Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2020
Page count: 393pp
Publisher: Grand Canyon Press
Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2020
In these 12 stories, MacDonald (Montpelier Tomorrow, 2014, etc.) uses far-flung, often exotic locales to emphasize her characters’ difficulties in making emotional connections.
The title story sets the tone—anger at odds with longing: when a vacationing American realizes that the rug merchant with whom she’s had a fling in Istanbul has set her up for what is probably a scam, memories of her estranged deadbeat brother complicate her reaction. “Pancho Villa’s Coin” offers a child’s jaundiced view of a trip to Mexico with her beaten-down mother and alcoholic, abusive father. “Key West” presents a single mother vacationing with her adored but selfishly obnoxious college-age son. Another desperate mother in “Finding Peter” searches for her missing adopted 18-year-old son in Prague, where he has disappeared because he feels “at home here.” The community college student in “Proud to Be an American”—set in Ohio—feels betrayed when his boss, a father figure, gives him notice. In “Two Trains in Manmad,” the arrival of her widowed mother-in-law from India forces a Canadian woman to face the reality of her long marriage. In contrast, the Japanese “Ambassador of Foreign Affairs” arrives in California for his daughter’s reluctant marriage to an American and sees that love may be possible across cultures. Other stories show glints of similar optimism. A young American man with a facial deformity finds emotional acceptance from an unlikely source in Thailand. A 73-year-old woman exploring Turkey’s Anatolian coast with her adult granddaughter stops trying to be the “cool, adventuresome grandma” and relaxes in “Tesekkür.” In “Oregano,” a newly married 42-year-old finds her much younger husband continually annoying until he catches her off guard. Elderly affection becomes a possibility in “The Bean Grower.” The harshest story, “Weekend in Baltimore”—about racial injustice and, to a lesser degree, friendship—is timely but obvious and stands apart from the rest of the volume.
With elegant prose enlivened by shards of mean humor, MacDonald captures how hard it is to love and/or trust abroad or at home.
Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2016
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: Summertime Publications Inc.
Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015
After a woman’s son-in-law contracts amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, she tries to help the family, but the burdens of caregiving take her relationships to the breaking point.
Kindergarten teacher Colleen Gallagher, 53, is glad to help out when her daughter Sandy’s husband, Tony, gets a fatal diagnosis: ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. With a newborn, a toddler, a high-pressure job and Tony’s medical procedures to manage, Sandy needs all the help she can get. Colleen is all too familiar with being a young widow left to raise small children on her own; her husband died in a car accident when Sandy was 5. Though Tony’s family and friends start out with optimism and good intentions, tempers are soon frayed and patience worn out by the constant demands of caretaking. Sandy is often angry and resentful; Colleen feels like a slave. In the end, the survivors will have to go on with their lives. MacDonald (co-author: The Quiet Indoor Revolution, 1992) gives an unflinching portrait of dealing with a debilitating chronic illness: the expense, the logistics, the red tape, and especially the brutal, exhausting, undignified truths of nursing: “None of the caregivers’ manuals mentioned the orange shit that oozed out Tony’s rectum only half-way so that I had to dig out the rest as I wiped his butt.” The characters have a maddening way of making things more difficult for themselves; despite Tony’s wealthy parents, all the household DIY chores—scraping plaster, sewing drapes, cleaning gutters—for some reason fall to Colleen. But it’s really health care that doesn’t make sense. Tony’s doctor recommends a life-prolonging feeding tube. Why? “Because doctors love technology. Also, she doesn’t have to live here,” a nurse explains. Commenting on Tony’s feeding chair, she continues, “When I started in this profession, you never would have seen equipment like that in a home. It doesn’t belong here.” MacDonald saves her debut novel from being too didactic by her well-rounded characters and Colleen’s complex, thoughtful responses to the untenable situation.
An affecting, deeply honest novel; at the same time, a lacerating indictment of our modern health care system.
Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2014
Page count: 318pp
Publisher: All Things That Matter Press
Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2014
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015
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