Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Like A Sister" - Janice Daugharty

The fifties in America are usually portrayed as an age of unprecedented wealth, which they certainly were, for many. Stay at home mothers, television, supermarkets and one automobile in every suburban garage.

Daugharty's "Like A Sister" presents a different reality. Set in a small Georgia town in 1956, the book takes the reader through a few tragic months in the life of Sister, a 13 year old girl.

Neglected by her young mother Marnie and her new boyfriend, Sister spends most of her days and all of her summer vacation acting as a mother to her 10 year old twin brothers and baby sister. She yearns to be "respectable" like her neighbour Willa Lamar, without knowing exactly what that entails other than wearing shoes on the street, not sleeping in her day clothes and going to church.

Unfortunately for her, the citizens of Cornerville seem to have made up their minds: the Odumses are nothing but white trash, and whatever goes on in the back room of the cafe her mother and boyfriend have taken over, it is most certainly not respectable.

Sister loves her mother almost as much as the woman ignores her and her siblings, and like so many abused children is fiercely protective of Marnie: she tears petitions tacked to the door of the restaurant, hides a charred cross she finds one morning in front of the cafe. When, one night, she watches, unable to move, men dressed in white hoods assemble in front of the cafe, her most powerful emotion is shame - she feels as if she should be helping her mother.

Both the southern dialect and the geographical precision of the descriptions make "Like A Sister" an absorbing read. We feel the hot tar under Sister's feet as she makes her way across town, her little body growing tired and crooked as she carries her baby sister (a baby which, almost a year old still has not been given a name by her mother) on her hip up and down the road all day long.

In the end, though, it is Sister herself that makes Daugharty's book so poignant. A child so beaten down she doesn't even question the morality of the slimy local politician's attention: she knows it's got something to do with "sex", and even though she ignores what that means exactly, is aware at that young age that it is some sort of currency between men and women and tries repeatedly so convince herself to enter the bargain; a girl that is so aware of her own status in the small town that she is grateful that none of Willa's daughters are in her class at school - even though they all play together at home, she doesn't expect them to acknowledge her there.

When her mother finally decides to leave her behind and keep on moving, the girl is so desperate to convince Marnie that she will not be a burden, that she offers "We could both be whores" and means it. Sister would do anything, even after her siblings have been placed in adoptive homes, even after Willa has offered to take her in, to keep close to this woman who is nothing more than footsteps coming in late at night, shouts behind a closed door and far way memories of happier times.

It is while refusing to believe she has been left behind, while keeping the lights on so her neighbours will believe she is not alone that Sister falls prey to the sexual attack that has been eminent throughout most of the book.

What happens next is a particularly satisfying kind of revenge - the kind that southern women seem to be so deft at, cleverly hidden behind macadamia pies, iced tea, pink sundresses and the scent of magnolias - with help of the respectable Willa.

Of my latest reads, only Jim Harrison comes to mind as an author so firmly anchored in a sense of time and place - enough to make you live there while you read, and take you back whenever you remember it.

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