A daughter grapples with loss in this tender memoir of a troubled family.
After debut author Harkin’s father, Jack, contracted a mysterious infection that caused multiple strokes, she took a leave of absence from college in 1996 to return home to Montana and attend to him. Her family wasn’t well-equipped to deal with the sudden illness, she says; her mother, Linda, wasn’t even sure where her husband kept the family’s money. His work as an airline pilot resulted in a childhood of frequent moves and unpredictable living situations; once, the author’s sister, Erica, came home from school to find a note on the door with a new address, signed “Love, Mom.” Still, the family managed to build a treasure trove of memories, vacations, and adventures, as a family dinner ended with Linda pretending to be a lima bean. But running through it all, Harkin writes, was an undercurrent of anxiety. One time in 1983, Linda chillingly imitated the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz until the 8-year-old Harkin cried. Her father also had a longtime affair that loomed over the family and led to more secrets being revealed. As the family worried over whether to take him off life support, an even bigger loss forced the author to hold her siblings close. Harkin lovingly creates portraits of various figures in her life, from their family friend with a “Kentucky twang” to Linda, who becomes the heart of the story. The narrator does a fine job of mining her childhood for sweet stories that contrast with the sour turn that her parents’ marriage takes. The latter half of the memoir, though, comes in a rush, with some epiphanies that seem forced (as when one chapter ends, “We could choose to be a functioning family”). Readers may also wish that the author’s interior life were portrayed as vividly as her memories of others. Still, she honestly shows her family’s flaws and quirks.
A memorable story of intriguing people even if the author’s emotional journey doesn’t pack a big punch.