Poet Pupek’s first novel, the story of an 11-year-old girl with a crazy mother and a father who abandons her, lingers in the darkest corners of the Southern-gothic tradition.
Ellie’s Mama ran away from her middle-class parents to marry Ellie’s uneducated Daddy. Mama is cultured and sensitive, so sensitive that she had to be institutionalized already. Daddy, who manages the local general store, keeps a lid on things at home by medicating Mama occasionally with a syringe of horse tranquilizer. Ellie adores Daddy and helps care for Mama, whose mental health improves when she becomes pregnant. Then Mama falls down the stairs and the doctors warn Daddy she may lose the baby. Ellie has already seen Daddy kissing Tess, a local teenager who grows the tomatoes he sells at his store. Now Daddy moves Tess into the house, supposedly to care for Mama as she recuperates, but Ellie knows Daddy and Tess are having sex. So does Mama, who becomes frantic to hold onto her husband. When Mama delivers her baby stillborn, she gets Ellie to hide baby Tom in the freezer until Ellie’s friend brings over some formaldehyde so Mama can carry him around in a jar. Ellie hates Tess for obvious reasons, but feels a little sorry for her when she learns that Tess’s father has abused her during her epileptic fits. While Daddy goes to Tess’s father’s place with his shotgun, Tess has an epileptic seizure. Daddy then takes Tess away with him. The local sheriff, who’s a little in love with Mama, gets involved, as does a clairvoyant black woman and her saintly husband. After Mama’s death and Daddy’s arrest, Ellie ends up in the care of a kindly woman. Despite her family history, her future looks hopeful.
Pupek creates a strong voice for Ellie but riddles the story with so many clichés that her novel becomes a caricature of itself.