A girl learns to rise above a traumatic past in this debut fictionalized autobiography.
Young Mary Ellen seems like a typical girl living an ordinary life in 1950s Rhode Island. She loves her parents, her Italian grandparents, and her little brother, Ray. She enjoys listening to fairy tales, playing outside, and learning about her Italian heritage. Her parents seem to have a good marriage, and her family is fairly well-off. But that’s just the outer facade. In reality, Mary Ellen’s life is terribly broken. Her father does things to her that she doesn’t understand every time they’re alone, and she doesn’t feel that she can tell anyone about it, even though she can see that her dad’s behavior is tearing her family apart. As she grows older and the abuse gets worse, she finally finds the courage to tell her father “no”—but she still has to deal with her family’s profound struggles and the lingering guilt and shame that resulted from her childhood ordeal. Despite all that, she strives to rise above her past, form new relationships, and build a new life for herself. Sinclair’s writing is solid, with detailed descriptions of Mary Ellen’s surroundings, like the following description of her grandfather: “Everything about him is neat; his pants and shirt are pressed, and the top of his head is shiny, with a circle of wispy white hair left around it. He has bushy white eyebrows and black eyes. People call him Mr. Clean because he looks like the man on the label of the detergent that my mother washes floors with.” Such scenes hammer home the normalcy of her life, contrasting horribly with the (thankfully not graphic) scenes showing her “secret.” She describes her mental struggles mostly in a child’s vocabulary, which makes them all the more effective. Occasionally the dialogue feels a little more forced, with characters spelling out their feelings in situations where most real people would try to keep them hidden. The narrative also drags at times, but for the most part, this is a well-written, moving tale of overcoming hardship.
A courageous story about a brave heroine.