When I First Knew by Joan Alden

When I First Knew

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A 7-year-old tomboy rebels against both gender stereotypes and her controlling mother in Alden’s (Before Our Eyes, 1993) epistolary novel.

Abigail Ann Harper is growing up fast in 1950s suburban Detroit. She prefers sports to playing with dolls and is stuck trying to borrow her brother’s baseballs and basketballs since she is told that sports aren’t for girls. Her mother is the architect of most of Abby’s misery. She forces Abby to wear fancy dresses and shoes, forbids (or at least strongly discourages) her from playing ball, and withholds love if Abby doesn’t embrace the role of the pretty girl. It isn’t all bad. She watches sports on TV with her dad, and some neighborhood kids choose her before her brother when picking teams. A local haunted house offers up some mystery for Abby, who is something of an old soul. After finding a jacket inside the crumbling dwelling, she tries to find the original owner. Now 10, Abby is a bicycle-riding sleuth who scans through obituaries on library microfilms and visits neighboring suburbs to unravel the jacket owner’s secrets. She meets Daniel, a rather youngish 30-year-old, who can provide both sports instruction and clues to his family’s troubled history. Told over seven years, Abby becomes a dissatisfied Girl Scout, a junior high school cheerleader, and eventually a girl who is assuredly in charge of her sexuality. Alden’s novel paints a postwar Michigan landscape, from the booming suburbs to lakeside vacations and country-club fireworks shows. Abby is more of a critic than a victim who, Alden shows, finds outlets for her interests while deflecting her mother’s scorn. It’s a mother-daughter novel in every way, and the matriarch here is a fairly cold one, yet Alden manages to build the concise story into a coming-of-age tale that includes not only the stifling elements of Abby’s world, but the unique possibilities. In describing Abby’s struggle to be herself, Alden has told a convincing, true-to-life story that is sometimes painful and more often inspiring.

An affecting novel about a determined girl with guts.

Publisher: Manuscript
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2016


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