A sometimes plodding, sometimes inspired chronicle of a daughter’s transient childhood.
Helwig begins and ends her meandering memoir at her mother Carola’s gravesite, a place where redemption and closure temper jagged memories of years spent shouldering the burden of caretaking her five younger sisters while her truant mother succumbed to mental illness. A “raven-haired, hazel-eyed beauty,” Carola became a child bride in 1948 at 14 in sleepy Glenwood, Iowa, giving birth to the author a year into her marriage while making ends meet writing jingles for grooming products. At 16, Carola suffered a nervous breakdown trying to juggle two daughters, farm life and marriage, so she divorced her husband and moved the family to Colorado to stay at her mother’s house. It wasn’t long before Davy, an oil driller, fell in love with and swiftly married her, bringing about third daughter Patricia. Helwig nimbly conveys her confusion when, at age 6, Carola inexplicably dumped her and sister Vicki off at their biological father’s country home back in Iowa for the summer. Those “idyllic” months on the farm would turn into years before Carola returned, ushering them through an endless succession of cities, schools, the birth of two more girls and the adoption of cousin Nancy. As Helwig chronicles her unorthodox upbringing, her narrative suffers from a surfeit of detail and exposition that alternately decorates yet dilutes her cheerless childhood. Still, in growing up devoid of traditional parental affection and support, the author’s depiction of her life and her mother’s downward spiral toward parental fatigue is frank, and this sincerity refreshes the frequently rambling prose. Bearing the increasingly physical punishments and continually caretaking for her younger sisters while Carola drank at local bars, Helwig sadly reminisces on becoming “swallowed up by the grown-up world.” However, “for a few precious moments,” she reflects, “we actually felt like a normal family.”
A painful purging of demons that is more cathartic for the author than readers.