Mary McGarry Morris is particularly good at portraying the many small humiliations that add up to rage in the heart of a poor child. In her new novel, THE LOST MOTHER, Thomas and his plucky little sister, Margaret, struggle to cope with their mother's abandonment. Meanwhile, the Great Depression is dragging on and the Talcotts' father, already devastated by his wife's departure, gets more and more desperate.
Henry Talcott is a butcher in rural Vermont. He travels from farm to farm slaughtering animals as needed. Unfortunately, in hard times, these animals are not replaced and he quickly runs out of ways to support his children. His neighbors and his vanished wife's family step in to help, but they are all disastrous choices in their own ways.
The children learn brutal lessons about trust and fairness, and as their sense of peril increases, they become determined to find their beloved mother. When they do so and realize that the difficult economic times are not the only reason for their mother's departure, they lapse into real crisis. It is no wonder that Thomas can no longer control his temper whereas Margaret's eagerness to please develops into a cynical survival skill. The lowest point for the children would seem to be their stay in the orphanage, but they really hit rock bottom when they learn who committed them and why.
Ms. Morris's characters are heartbreaking in their casual cruelty and the children are especially well-depicted, neither oversweet in their pathos nor unbelievably wise beyond their years. It's impossible to read of their tribulations and not want to reach into the pages and help them. The adults have a broad range of faults and foibles: they are cheats and alcoholics, hypocrites and users, blind, mean, powerless, and self-deluded, sharing only their unreliability. None of these traits is as unpardonable as Henry's crimes of being poor and unable to hide how hard he is struggling. The two faces of small-town life are well-represented, and readers from this milieu may wince to see them portrayed so accurately.
Character-driven stories of such excellence are all too rare. The characters of THE LOST MOTHER will stay in readers' minds for a long time.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 7, 2011