It sounds like a TV movie of the week, but Bohjalian’s eighth novel, among them the Oprah-picked Midwives (1997), works hard and pretty successfully to transcend the hackneyed scenario of parents adopting a child after losing their own.
After a sudden flood kills the daughters of Laura and Terry Sheldon, a highway patrolman and his wife, they struggle for two years to cope with the loss. Finally Laura, unable to have more children, persuades her husband to take in a foster child. And so Albert arrives, a ten-year-old African-American boy—this in an all-white rural Vermont town. Neither a child from hell nor a particularly lovable one, Albert has endured the routine cruelties of the foster care system, and he enters the family with little hope of change. Although he’s the only African-American in town, however, he suffers surprisingly little overt racism. But plenty of insensitivity. “I am completely color-blind,” announces his teacher proudly. “I treat all my students as if they were white.” His classmates tolerate him, but their schoolboy cliques remain closed. Yearning for friendship, he finds it in an elderly neighbor, a retired teacher who allows him to care for his horse and teaches him about the buffalo soldiers, black cavalry who served in the American west after the Civil War. The story would be half its length but for stepfather Terry’s one-night stand with a young woman who becomes pregnant. Although she’s not willing to break up his marriage, Terry finds himself yearning for a child of his own, and their affair resumes. Devastated when she learns of it, Laura demands that he move out. He does, but the crisis is resolved and the marriage endures.
Another that may be in the Oprah mode, a tale of family torment. But Oprah’s picks as a rule have literary merit, and this is no exception. Despite a conventional plot, Bohjalian’s characters ring true, and he writes with insight and feeling.