Book due to be published on August 7, 2018.
This book was provided to me by Random House publishing as an advanced reader copy in return for an honest review.
It is difficult to describe how growing up poor in a rural area is different. Even to my own ears it sounds like whining. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue, the kind of thing that happens when a teacher is SO smart about the content she is teaching but cannot break it into its pieces to help students understand it, it difficult for me to point a finger at exactly what elements made the whole thing so miserable.
This is why I am thankful for Paula Sanders’ novel The Distance Home. Reading this book was painful for me because so much of it rang so true and so deep in my bones from my childhood that at a couple of points I had to put the book down for a couple of days just to recover so I could read on.
Even sitting down to write this review it’s difficult for me to unwind the tangled web that is this novel. The distant father, the mother who hates her mother-in-law and plays favorites with her children. The homophobic environment of any rural area that enforces the manliest man idea while destroying anything outside of that definition. The restriction of women to certain roles.
The most tragic part of this tale is how the son, who is not homosexual, simply loves to dance, especially ballet. He is good at it, it makes him light up inside, it gets him through the day. It’s the classic story for why we should have arts in school – that for some kids that’s what they enjoy and put their efforts into, and that’s just as valuable as math and science.
But of course his dad is ashamed of him but proud of his daughter who eventually joins him at the dance studio where he studies. His mom and dad fight over how he is treated by his dad, how he is never encouraged or recognized for his skill and effort. His dad sends him to work at a ranch to get the “phase” to pass, he beats the ever-loving daylights out of him, and eventually it is inferred that he is raped by a photographer who takes him for a special photo session alone with his mother’s permission after providing photos for the dance studio’s advertisements.
It is passive neglect. Day after day hoping things will just happen and when they don’t (or happen but not how they expected) anger is the only way to address the disappointment. The lack of communication ability, the constant fights that reinforce anxiety and inadequacy in the children, the poor school system and insular community – everything is set up for these talented, passionate children to be forced into unhealthy patterns and habits just to get by.
I appreciate that Saunders made her ending realistic. These people are damaged, there isn’t a happy ending for them. The daughter escapes, but she doesn’t escape whole, she escapes with bites taken out of her and does what she has to do to stay away, successful, and “safe.” This pressure alone, the pressure to “make it” and escape where you came from, is still the pressure of poverty. The danger of making a mistake and backsliding is always there, so you must double your efforts to keep it at bay because there is no safety net if you fall. Only poverty and the abuse it fosters, both physical and mental.
I think amidst all these Cletus-safaris (stories about “real” Americans) and attempts to romanticize and explain rural America it is helpful to be reminded that these areas are harmful. They are real, but they are dangerous. So much of what we are seeing in the national spotlight: racism, sexism, violence, aggressiveness towards gender diversion – this has been the American reality for years, especially in the places where the national spotlight didn’t reach (until now). This is America, and it is damaging in the long-term for people who have no choice but to be born into its clutches.
If you were not born in a rural area you need to read this book. It’s perfect. It depicts what it is and you will feel what it feels like because Saunders’ writing is evocative and clear. It also serves as a reminder that in the midst of our current national crisis, there are probably millions of people living in very real fear due to nothing other than the element of chance in where they were born.
This is a real one. Go get you some.