The freckled-face girl on the cover of this book got my attention. The basic description of the novel did not excite me: Tillie, a young woman going through labor, is faced with “painful childhood memories“ regarding her moody, bizarre but loving mother, Mara, and her strict, emotionally-distant father, a colonel in the Air Force. Novels about dysfunctional families do not usually interest me. Still, I picked it up because there was a mystery involved. The mother disappears, and the story of eight-year-old Tillie’s confusion and her subsequent attempts to figure out where her mother had gone were intriguing.
As young children in the 1970s, Tillie and her brother Phil lived with their parents on a base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over time, Tillie grew to understand that her mother was different from other mothers. Mara never left the house and wouldn’t answer the door when neighbors knocked. She left housework undone and crumpled on the floor in a heap sometimes when her husband tried to get her to be a good housewife and mother. But she seemed happy when she played with Tillie and always read Tillie bedtime stories. She also gave Tillie a warm, bitter drink in a special cup every night at bedtime, a drink Tillie loved, because it made the room spin pleasantly and helped her to fall asleep.
When Tillie was eight, her father landed a job at the Pentagon designing weapons of mass destruction. Tillie is sent to stay with one of her father’s female co-workers for a couple of weeks as the move takes place. She doesn’t want to be without her mother for so long and resists this new woman and refuses to cooperate, but her father promises that she’ll be reunited with the family once the household is settled. When Tillie arrives at the new house, her mother has disappeared. Tillie doesn’t know what happened to her mother. Her twelve-year-old brother Phil doesn’t know but makes some assumptions, and her father isn’t talking. Tillie is devastated and looks for her mother everywhere.
Tillie is a new kid at school, as is Shirl, an African-American girl. The two are shunned by the other kids, and soon become friends. With Shirl’s help, Tillie looks for clues to where Tillie’s mother has gone. She has a fertile imagination and a strong determination to find out what has happened to her mother. I had a hard time putting this book down. I, too, needed to know what exactly happened to Tillie’s mother.
There are a few chapters written from Tillie’s point of view as an adult, but they are not what makes the story. Her recollections of the year when she was eight and her mother disappeared are what makes this story fascinating. Even though the girl on the cover is cute, this is not a cute story. The interactions between family members are sometimes hard to deal with. This is Susan Henderson’s first novel. She created believable characters and believable family dynamics. I look forward to more novels by her.
Check the WRL catalog for Up From the Blue