Deep in the forest of a national park in Tennessee, 15-year-old Carey Blackburn lives in a broken down camper. Her little sister, six-year-old Jenessa, relies on Carey to provide her with food and love. Their mother lives in the camper as well, but she leaves the girls for long stretches of time. Although Carey must ration their stockpiled cans of beans until their mother returns, this is almost preferable to their mother’s presence. She abuses her daughters to feed her addiction. Carey’s accounts of her mother’s abuse appear when something triggers her to have a flashback, and the memories are nothing short of sickening. This is a story about family, love and trust, but primarily, this is a story about abuse and the long process of recovery.
"Murdoch tells Carey’s story in a first-person narration inflected with a slight twang that Carey consciously tries to lose. She unfolds Carey’s history piece by haunting piece. The pace never flags, even when the action revolves around nothing more than the tensions at the family dinner table."
Carey’s mother took her to the woods when she was five years old. She tells Carey that she did it to save them from Carey’s father. He hit them, she says. It takes Carey a long time to realize that this explanation does not clarify anything, since her mother hits her, as well. When Carey’s mother gives birth to Jenessa, Carey is forced to mature far beyond her years and become the parent that her drug-addled mother cannot be. Carey and Jenessa read Winnie the Pooh books and call their forest the Hundred Acre Wood. Their only glimpses of the outside world come from pictures and descriptions in the books that their mother procures for them. The sisters sleep in all of their clothes on the same double bed to avoid freezing during the cold winter nights. Carey’s mother teaches her to play the violin, perhaps the only real kindness she has ever shown her daughter. When their mother is gone for a long time, Carey and Jenessa pray to the god of beans to keep them alive.
When they hear footsteps approaching their clearing, Carey and Jenessa expect the worst. A woman in high heels tells the girls that she is a social worker. Their mother has been gone for weeks, and she notified the authorities of her daughters’ location. She knew she would not return to them. The social worker tells the girls that they don’t have to live in the camper anymore. They can leave the forest and live with their father, who has accompanied her into the woods. Carey does not consciously refer to him as her father. In her narration, she simply calls him “the man.” Carey knows that her father abused her and her mother, but to refuse to live with him would be to risk splitting with Jenessa. If they refuse to live with their father, the two of them might be forced into separate foster homes, explains the social worker, since Jenessa’s selective mutism requires foster parents specifically equipped to cope with her special needs. Jenessa doesn’t talk. Not since the white-star night. Carey knows that Jenessa needs her, and she will risk “the man’s” house if it means that she will not have to say goodbye to her sister.
“The man” lives on a farm. He has a loving wife, a surly teenage daughter, and a sweet three-legged dog with whom Jenessa forms an immediate bond. He even takes them out for “handburgers” and fries, at the girls’ request. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that rich food, after years of living near starvation, will upset their stomachs. He is trying his best, but this isn’t easy for him either.
The new additions to the family are certainly not easy for Delaney, Carey and Jenessa’s teenage step-sister. Murdoch walks a delicate line in casting Delaney as both antagonist, an obstacle in the way of Carey’s true assimilation into a family, and another sympathetic victim to the tragic circumstances who acknowledges that she has comparatively little right to feel victimized. Nonetheless, her struggles with a warped sort of jealously feel very real.
This complexity of characterization runs through Carey, as well. She loves her sister more than anything, but sometimes struggles to allow other people to parent her, even when they do so with the utmost love and attention. Anyone who has been close to a sibling will recognize the deep bond between Carey and Jenessa. For these two girls, however, this relationship has been ratcheted up to unusual levels. Carey is obsessed with protecting Jenessa, as she had to be in the forest, and Carey is the only person to whom Jenessa will speak.
As Carey learns to navigate school and never quite gets used to the luxury of running water, she experiences flashbacks to her childhood of abuse. In remembering, she must come to terms with the deep scars that her mother inflicted upon her, and must learn to doubt her mother’s account of her father’s behavior. By facing the truth about her past, Carey opens herself up to the future and learns to make her way in a world marked by family dinners, high school parties and making friends (or not) during lunch break.
On her website, Murdoch classifies this book as a YA/adult crossover. She is right to do so. While the material will cover nothing the mature teen reader has not seen before, readers should know that this novel falls firmly on the heavy side of the YA literature spectrum, alongside many classics in this age group.
Astoundingly, this is Emily Murdoch’s first published book. Her rich and easy prose suggests that she has spent plenty of time honing her craft. Murdoch tells Carey’s story in a first-person narration inflected with a slight twang that Carey consciously tries to lose. She unfolds Carey’s history piece by haunting piece. The pace never flags, even when the action revolves around nothing more than the tensions at the family dinner table. The ending is satisfying; the complex issues of abuse are not completely resolved, but Murdoch is right to leave us on this note. In fact, some will surely argue that they are resolved too neatly. Regardless, Murdoch has proven herself to be a master storyteller. Let’s hope that the two works-in-progress listed on her website will soon join her oeuvre. When this book finds its audience, Murdoch’s fans will be clamoring for more.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on April 5, 2013