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THE EMPRESS OF ONE by Faith Sullivan


by Faith Sullivan

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 1-57131-011-8
Publisher: Milkweed

Sullivan, winner of Milkweed's 1996 National Fiction Prize for her fifth novel, this follow-up to The Cape Ann (1988), limns with discerning sympathy the struggle of a young girl to escape the terrible toll of a mother's mental illness. The story is set once again in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota; the time now is the mid-1930s, when Sally Wheeler's mother Stella begins having crying spells. She cries when Sally enters kindergarten, she cries in department stores, she cries over anything remotely sad. By the age of seven, Sally resolves that she will never cry as long as she lives. And while her mother gets worse, sinking farther and farther into a depression blamed on menopause, Sally struggles to live a normal life. Sullivan's insights into a child's desperate need for normality and acceptance give immediacy to her story. Close friends like Lark and Beverly- -characters from The Cape Ann—help, as do adults like Lark's mother Arlene Erhart and the widowed Mrs. Stillman and her shell- shocked son Hillyard. Grandparents are loving and attentive, and so is father Donald, but nothing can compensate Sally for her mother's worsening condition. Stella is eventually hospitalized; Sally and her father become the subjects of local prejudice; and, as Sally moves on to high school, these pressures take their toll: Her grades decline, she begins sleeping with boys, and she becomes involved with pathologically possessive Cole Barnstable. A drama teacher, recognizing her acting ability, helps her find some contentment, but when he dies in an accident, Sally falls apart, retreating into herself and cleaning house obsessively, although good friends do come through. Finally encouraged to realize her talents, Sally writes and stars in the ``The Kingdom of Making Sense,'' a play celebrating a place ``where everything is possible, for sadness rarely lasts beyond an hour.'' A perceptive and refreshingly unsensational account, if at times too slowly paced, of a child's determination to claim and affirm life.