I was barred from school for the day because I'd been biting again. Whenever I pressed my teeth into one of my classmates, my teacher stopped the lesson and called, "Tillie, Tillie." There was always a struggle as she tried to wrestle the hand or arm from my mouth, but I held on--fighting until the last string of spit released--because I liked to leave a mark. [pg 9]
Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson
Fiction; 320 pgs
I recently caught a rerun of an old Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit episode in which one of the lead detectives must reach out to his estranged mother when his daughter's mental illness comes to light because of legal issues. His mother also suffered from mental illness, only it was never talked about in that way. His mother was odd, sometimes manic and then falling into deep depressions.
I couldn't help but draw parallels between that episode and Susan Henderson's novel, Up From the Blue. What it must have been like for a child growing up in a home with a mother suffering from a mental illness, especially at a time when such things were kept secret and not talked about outside of the home. In the TV show, it was the detective who was orderly and regimented, even strict--a result of his upbringing and his hope to instill order into his own family life. In Henderson's novel, the father, an officer in the military takes on that same role. I imagine the time periods of when the detective and Tillie were children were similar.
At the start of the novel, Tillie, recognizing the signs of labor, is forced to reach out to her estranged father for help. Her husband is out of the country on business; she is unpacking after having just moved to a town; and she knows no one else. Her father comes to her aid, but at a price. With him comes all the memories Tillie would love to forget, and she is forced to confront the past and deal with her feelings in regards to her father. The novel takes place mostly in the past, when Tillie was 8 years old, with only a few interruptions from the present (1991) to remind us where we started.
The author uses subtle markers to remind the reader of the time period Tillie grew up in throughout the novel, including racial tensions and the political climate. This proved an effective way of setting the environment for which Tillie tells her story.
I admit that as I started reading, my feeling about the book tended toward how typical it was. Another novel about family dysfunction. A steady diet of such novels can be overwhelming (one of the reasons I like to mix up my reading so much--variety keeps me from growing tired of a topic or genre). As I continued to read, I remained skeptical, but somewhere in there, I lost that skepticism and the book really took off for me. By the end, tears streaming down my face, I was hooked. It turned out to be a little different than I expected.
I liked young Tillie from the beginning. She's a free spirit if ever there was one. As a Marine Corps brat, I know what life can be like in the home of a military person. In Tillie's case, appearances were everything given her father's important position and high rank. Her father was very strict and demanded order. Tillie rebelled against that. Instead of writing a science paper, she'd write poems. Tillie's older brother was much more apt to please and to do as he was told. I appreciated the way the author did not make this story just about Tillie, despite it being told from her viewpoint. Although Tillie was not completely aware of the impact events in their life were having on everyone else, it is clear to the reader. It was easy to understand Tillie's confusion and upset with her father once the entire story came out. At the same time, it was impossible not to also see his side of it, even if I don't agree with all of the choices he made or the reasons he made them.
At first I wished for a bit more resolution in the end. While certain aspects of the story were wrapped up satisfactorily, one particular piece left me wanting. That is until I really had a chance to think about it. Now I don't think any other ending would have fit--not realistically.
As inundated as you may be with books about family dysfunction, Up From the Blue is definitely worth a look.
You can learn more about Susan Henderson and her book on the literary blog LitPark. You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter: @litpark. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website for other tour stops as well!
Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.