Make Believe: A Novel
Four-year-old "Bo" Gilbert has more than the ordinary little boy reasons to make believe. The book opens with him dangling from the roof of the car following an accident that has killed Jenny, his young mother. And Bo wasn't even born yet when his teenage father Kamon Gilbert was senselessly murdered. Bo is short for Hobo, Jenny's affectionate nickname for the boy who constantly slips out of the house to go walking, echoes of his grandfather's vivid and sometimes scary stories playing in his head.
Bo survives his hospital stay by withdrawing into himself, waiting for his mom to come back and get him. She has told him he must not talk to strangers, and the ambulance drivers and doctors certainly qualify on that account. Only after being home for several months with Erma and Sam, his kindly paternal grandparents, does he begin speaking again. His Gran and Pop have done quite a bit of raising him already, while Jenny worked at the mall, and their love seems to be his only chance at happiness.
Meanwhile, his other grandparents are doing some scheming of their own. Kamon Gilbert's black skin proved to be the final wedge between the rebellious Jenny and her mother Marge and stepfather Eddie Gantz. Marge divorced Jenny's freewheeling, hard drinking father Tony when Jenny was small, and married hardworking Eddie, an appliance salesman with a talent for self-righteousness. Marge and Eddie haven't even ever seen Bo, and when the hospital sends them an 11,000 dollar bill for his care, they forward it on to the Gilberts. Erma agrees to pay, but hints at mistakes the hospital made, and this information suddenly reminds Eddie of his moral responsibility. "Marge and Eddie had an obligation to bring their grandson back into the family, to raise him as one of their own, to provide for him, to teach him their values and secure for him a reasonable indemnity to make up for medical negligence." He hires lawyers to get the boy returned to his care and to start working on a settlement from the hospital.
Eddie gets what he wants, and it proves to be more than he bargained for. All the resentment that Jenny and her younger sister Ann have felt for Eddie seems to descend on the hapless little Bo. He takes off whenever he gets the chance, refuses to eat, and even spits in Eddie's face. Soon Marge is lured away by what Eddie thinks of as this "devil child," and Bo, although young, absolutely understands the nature of the antipathy between him and Eddie. "Even though Eddie yelled at him, Bo assumed he still had the advantage. Maybe he didn't know in any precise way the meaning of advantage, but he had a sense of his power and the pliancy of his subjects. I am King Bo. Kneel before me!" Their long battle has tragic and unpredictable consequences for Marge and Eddie, but ultimately returns Bo to the care of Erma and Sam.
With this dramatic palette of emotions and viewpoints, Joanna Scott demonstrates her considerable skills as an author. She takes the viewpoint of Jenny, of Kamon, even of Eddie, and makes them all utterly believable. At the end of the first chapter, which starts with the car accident, she breaks all the traditional point-of-view rules, widening outwards from a cozy domestic scene at Sam and Erma's living room to seemingly unrelated events down the street and across the city: "...and just as the odds would have it, everyone within the city limits kept right on breathing for at least another minute." It's a surprising, effective sketch of the randomness and fragility of all our lives.
But it is the rendition of Bo's thoughts and concerns that make this novel unique. We cannot help but be drawn to this small boy as he both struggles for control over his own story and feels helplessly drawn into the narrative of others. We hop, we spin, we grieve for a magic plastic star lost in the grass. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for a previous novel, this time around Scott has created a very convincing world of MAKE BELIEVE.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on February 20, 2001
Make Believe: A Novel
- Publication Date: February 20, 2001
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books
- ISBN-10: 0316776661
- ISBN-13: 9780316776660