Three generations of women seek to forge independent identities while struggling to understand their roles in this book about mothers and daughters, marriage, education, and risk.
Matson (The Tree-Sitter, 2006) writes vignettelike chapters that detail a sweeping family history beginning in 1930s India, where Elsie is married to J.N., a strict Mennonite missionary. “India keeps reducing [Elsie] to a person who knows nothing,” but her daughter, Kathryn, questions the world directly and moves through it fluidly. While Elsie averts her eyes from uncertainty and a world that seems to belong to men, Kathryn is curious and engaged. Unfortunately, Elsie dies early, of a stroke. Kathryn, upon returning to the United States, feels detached from her family, education, and culture: “The gulf between India and America was so wide she could scarcely see past it.” She feels like “a person awkwardly between worlds—India and Illinois, Mennonite and modern,” and so she strikes out on her own for Oregon. She meets Carl, a confident stranger who promises to be the antithesis to everything she’s lived before. Unfortunately, Carl harbors some secrets. “All [Kathryn] wants,” though, “is that simple feeling of belonging.” They marry and have children, but their marriage begins to crumble under the weight of those secrets. Matson returns to the push and pull of safety versus desire. It is Kathryn’s daughter, Samantha, whose life becomes about both taking risk and keeping the family together in a meaningful way. Matson’s chapters, each of which jumps forward in time, conclude with an especially poignant reflection on aging, as Samantha cares for her dying mother in her final days.
This is a stoic view of mother-daughter love: an unsentimental reflection on both the tribulations and the importance of filial connection.