"From childhood's hour, I have not seen as others were. I have not seen as others saw."
-- Edgar Allen Poe, "Alone"
A family is the bricks with which we are all built. They define us; they give us structure and something to cling to, or something from which to rebel. The family we grow up with stays a part of our lives forever.
In FADED PICTURES FROM MY BACKYARD, Sue Carswell reflects back on her own families --- the one she grew up with, and the one she would watch every day through the window looking out onto the backyard. Carswell grew up in a house bordering the Albany Home for Children, where her father worked as the Administrator and her mother was a nurse. Fearing the influence the troubled orphans could have on them, Sue and her four siblings were not permitted to play or really interact much with the residents of the Home. As the author grows up watching the orphans from the distance across her backyard, she beings to go through developmental troubles of her own --- suffering from insomnia, panic attacks, and depression. Sue and her own family become increasingly distanced by her troubles, and she begins to wonder if she doesn't fit in better with the lives she imagines the orphans must have, across the backyard.
Carswell's unique story is made up of pieced-together fragments, reflecting in some ways the fragmented lives of the Albany Home's residents. She skips back and forth through time in her own life story and interweaves her tale with stories of the Home's orphans. Carswell is a gifted storyteller with an eye for detail, although in early chapters dealing with her young childhood, the first-person narrative from the point of view of a young child does get a little tediously cute. She interweaves the stories of other orphans, growing up in the Albany Home during its different stages (when it was a more traditional orphanage, for example, during the Depression), but because Carswell could never really interact with those orphans, the stories feel somewhat impersonal. Kept, like many things, at a distance.
At its core, FADED PICTURES FROM MY BACKYARD is really about the family relationship Carswell knows and misses the most --- the relationship she shared with her own mother, who died in 1997. It's also the story of the strained relationship with her father, a man who --- like the orphans across the backyard --- she doesn't seem to be able to ever really understand.
Through FADED PICTURES FROM MY BACKYARD, Carswell shows us the many meanings of the word "orphan" and teaches us that it may never be too late to find our way home.
Reviewed by Lourdes Orive on January 21, 2011