Girl cousins watch each other grow up and apart while their combined families falter and fail: a remarkably knowing, edgy debut by an Arizona-based writer who raised five children and waitressed for 18 years before returning to school.
Ten-year-old narrator Rainey’s mother is the first to fall, when she breaks down under the stress of caring for a houseful of kids in upstate New York and is packed off to the mental hospital for electroshock treatment and a long rest. Taking Mom’s place is her red-haired younger sister Merle, who moves up from the Bronx with a hard-bitten attitude and a 13-year-old daughter. Joan, a child-woman who duplicates in spades her mother's foul mouth and rebellious streak, gets busy intimidating the cousins, especially Rainey. Meanwhile, Merle (“I’d shoot those little bastards”) is making the most of her time away from Uncle, the abusive fruit-vendor she left in the city with their delinquent son Wayne. She quickly makes the acquaintance of a local Native American photographer, stepping out to the roadhouse every chance she gets, while her daughter is winning the heart of his son, a fire-scarred loner with a horse Joan is just itching to ride. Rainey alternates between helping Joan and spying on her, but when Uncle arrives with Wayne, an already tenuous situation turns dangerous. The boy, a peeping Tom who develops a grudge against Rainey, ties her to a tree one winter's evening and leaves her to die. Then Uncle explodes in rage when he finds evidence of Merle's after-hours activity. Somehow, out of this maelstrom Rainey emerges with her sensitivity and goodness intact, although Joan pays a heavier price.
Joyful, doleful, artfully nuanced, and virtually flawless in voice and detail: this is as good as it gets.