Bernhard’s debut centers on the ugly cards fate deals to adolescent boy Wes Ballot: poverty, alcoholism, rape, incest, abuse, and abandonment, to name a few.
Living with the pain caused by other people in pain, the protagonist has a resilience that's almost beyond belief—really, it is hard to believe. The novel opens with 15-year-old Wes’ “ear to the ice, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland...where the ice had given way and the hungry lake had swallowed [his] mother whole.” The utter bleakness of this initial scene aptly sets the tone for the remainder of the book and showcases one of the author’s most commendable skills: visceral descriptions of the frigid winters in rural Minnesota. Abandoned by his drifter father, Wes ends up in Loma living with Gip and Ruby, his maternal grandparents. The two are a sad and vile pair who blame their grandson for his mother’s death. When Wes asks if God allowed his mother to die, Ruby responds heartlessly: “God wasn’t there, Wes….You were.” Against this emotional backdrop and with no supportive authority to guide him, Wes somehow attends high school, holds a summer job, and falls in love. Bernhard shows that she is not afraid of difficult or touchy subjects, illustrating the prevalence of classism and racism in the lives of the inhabitants of her fictional small town, but she doesn't go beyond the surface in her exploration of systematic prejudice. The problems, like the characters, are underdeveloped. As the novel progresses, Wes uncovers repressed family secrets so horrendous that the reader might find some passages difficult to read.
A coming-of-age story overloaded with tragedy, hopelessness, and trauma.