Like many Americans, Judy McFarland started life with high ideals. She seemed to share a connection with her husband Russ, and they dreamed of enduring couplehood. Judy would become a kindergarten teacher at a prestigious private school, and Russ would work toward being a prosperous professor at a local university. Optimistically, they had intended to raise two children into flourishing and productive adults. They were both hippies and stuck to New Age ideals, determining to put family first. All these dreams were centered on noble enough principles, but somehow they never took off and nothing turned out like they planned.
"THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD is a tale of a woman’s trespasses into adultery, then statutory rape, and finally madness...I strongly recommend this book to fans of psychological thrillers and literature."
Now in her 40s, Judy is silently dispassionate. Russ is obsessed with his doctoral dissertation, to the degree that his wife and family have ceased to matter. Neither sees a way out of the agony and fears of daily life, and both are feeling their age. The children have become distant and are nearly grown, the daughter away at college and the son a senior at the same private school where Judy teaches. Russ throws himself into work while Judy secretly considers divorce, becoming bitter and more detached with every passing day. Completing all responsibilities with robotic indifference, Judy has begun picturing co-workers and strangers in inappropriate erotic visions. This seems innocent enough, though she’s been dreaming about some people. Thus far, however, all her thoughts have been just that --- vague thoughts with no plan.
Jumping back to the 1960s, we see some picturesque visions of Judy’s childhood in Bavaria, through the eyes of a very frightened and apathetic little girl. She had been desperate to escape home, evading uncomfortable thoughts and places wherever she could. In her innocence and emotional need, Judy found friendship and good company with a local farmboy, a neighbor who was a few years older than her. Judy and Rudi spent a great deal of time together, sharing quiet afternoons in peace and comfort, enjoying the countryside, milking cows and observing the innocence of animals. In her friend, Judy found a decent fellow and a prospective future romance. But she broke off the friendship, for reasons that are not initially clear. Her childhood experiences form a greater mystery that illuminates the many fractured pieces of her psychological state in later years.
The story jumps forward and backward in time at intervals, from the 1960s in Bavaria to the 1990s in Maryland, with Judy’s full psychological profile unfolding in bits and pieces. We see different aspects and mysteries to her character and learn of some private bits of agony caused by mysterious happenings, like the death of a co-worker from cancer. Upon discovering that her husband is a substance abuser, Judy’s eventual emotional shutdown takes a staggering step forward, and her deceit begins in earnest the instant she finally gives up on all she once stood for: “Stand guard over truth. Look up to the noble. Decide for the good.”
Judy pursues an affair with a parent, seemingly without guilt, her reasons not clear. But once she makes the choice to give up on her marriage for good, one bad decision leads to another and she finds herself attracted (and relatively undisturbed about this fact) to a 16-year-old boy named Zach Patterson. Zach is an estranged new student who happens to be a close friend of her son’s. Against her will (at least at first), Judy must spend a great deal of time alone with Zach as he pursues completing his volunteer time in the fundraiser she’s chairing. From there, this dark and disturbing psychological tale progresses catastrophically, leaving the reader appalled at times and with a growing sense of dread and impending doom for every single person connected with Judy McFarland.
THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD is a tale of a woman’s trespasses into adultery, then statutory rape, and finally madness. Readers who can appreciate the power of strong literature and good writing may find it possible to overcome the grueling and disturbing nature of the subject matter. There are powerful statements made in Rebecca Coleman’s stunning debut novel, and there seems to be no end to the many-layered ironies and metaphors in the writing. The prospect of eventual salvation and preservation of dignity for the teenage victim here is a main driving force. I strongly recommend this book to fans of psychological thrillers and literature.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on September 29, 2011
The Kingdom of Childhood