A young girl struggles through life with an alcohol-swilling mother and a violent stepfather in this debut novel.
Liz Burke, age 9, is growing up hard in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. She has two brothers—one older, one younger—named Patrick and Matthew, and a dictator of a mother named Clare. Dad died years before in an accident at work, and Clare struggles to make ends meet working at the local brewery. One day, Liz and Patrick cut school to go to the river, and Patrick hits his head and drowns. Liz blames herself for the accident and now has to endure grief, problems at school, and a mother who is drinking heavily. She also needs to take care of Matthew, a sensitive boy who is just starting first grade. Unable to make rent, Clare begins to bring home gentlemen in the evenings, and Liz faces taunts at school for her mother’s descent into prostitution. Seeking a permanent mate, Clare latches on to Nick Sinclair, a veteran who has started working at the brewery. It is not long before he and Clare are brawling in the kitchen in drunken spats. Nick also physically abuses the kids and later rapes Liz. She tells no one of the crime, and the insanity at home continues. By the time Liz is 12, she is pregnant with Nick’s child, and the veteran, who fears exposure, takes her to Seattle. Clare, who had abandoned the family in disgust, is reunited with Matthew, while Liz begins anew in Washington under the impression she is in a loving relationship with Nick. Wammer’s narrative about wartime life in coal country describes the sometimes-brutal realities faced by his characters with a good deal of emotion and does well to add several kindhearted characters to the madhouse, including Liz herself and the departed dad. But parts of the story strain credulity. Too many people believe the often told lie that Liz is almost 18, and an additional sexual pairing with her and another man in Washington is unnecessary. Through a series of about-face personality changes from several characters and a tale that spans decades, the sad novel begins to feel overdone and a tad gratuitous.
An unforgiving story about abuse in a fractured and ruined family.