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KISS OF DEATH

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The Box Children," by Park Slope author Sharon Wyse, touches on a laundry list of painful issues, such as abusive parents, alcoholism, mental illness, infidelity and the agonies of adolescence, yet the novel is not an altogether depressing read.

The narrator of the story is buoyant, naive 11-year-old Lou Ann Campbell, who through her diary grapples with the hypocrisy, deceit and cruelty in the world around her. Each entry unfolds another agonizing episode in the Campbell family during the summer of 1960 on their Texas wheat farm.

Lou Ann’s box children are the five dolls she has named for the five miscarriages her mother has had to date. Her imaginative play with the dolls helps her to make sense of her increasingly unstable home life while she hopes that her mother’s current pregnancy turns out well.

Wyse excels at creating a believable, readable diary for Lou Ann. With simple language and humorous candor akin to Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn," Lou Ann tells her story, her way, with occasional misspelled words.

When her mother retaliates against her husband’s infidelity, Lou Ann writes, "I do think there is some accounting for what Mother is doing, and I think Daddy knows exactly what the numbers add up to."

"The Box Children" is in the tradition of Edith Konecky’s 1976 novel "Allegra Maud Goldman" (reprinted last year by the Feminist Press), about an 8-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Both Allegra and Lou Ann have older brothers whose freedoms in the outside world underline how the girls are stifled by their kitchen-bound spheres and by their mothers who suffocate their aspirations so they will one day be complacent, industrious homemakers.

But Allegra’s struggle to define a role for herself coming out of an upper-middle-class home in Brooklyn pales in comparison to Lou Ann’s struggle to protect herself from her mentally and physically abusive parents on a poor, desolate farm at the mercy of the elements. Yet, like Allegra, Lou Ann remains hopeful. She is constantly looking for a better vantage point to gain perspective on the vicious behavior of her family and the local townspeople and to appreciate nature’s bounty.

By using Lou Ann’s frank voice to tell the story, Wyse allows for no excuses or rationalizations for the bad behavior of adults. The father’s infidelity and mother’s alcohol abuse may be understandable, but through a child’s heartbreaking retelling, their actions are unforgivable. Her mother’s disapproval of her friendship with the daughter of a Mexican prostitute is understandable, because her mother doesn’t want Lou Ann to become a town pariah, too, but through Lou Ann’s eyes, the only logical course of action is to befriend the girl and disregard the hypocrisy that is even evident in the church congregation.

Wyse’s "Box Children" is a brief 186 pages, yet it is a riveting first novel, and this reader hopes it is just one of the many, haunting, revealing stories to come.


Sharon Wyse will read from her novel, "The Box Children" (Riverhead Books, $18.95) on Jan. 3 at 7 pm at the Montauk Club [25 Eighth Ave. at Lincoln Place in Park Slope, (718) 638-0800]. Admission is free.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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