Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn D. Wall - 278 pgs

Book CoverSweeping Up Glass is the story of Olivia Harker, her family, her friends, and the hardships they all endure in rural 1938 Kentucky. The book introduces us to Olivia and her immediate surviving family, and then shifts off into about 15 chapters of back story. These chapters relate Olivia's childhood and her previous struggles with her mentally ill mother, her doting father, the love of her life, and the segregated black community in her area. Olivia encounters many hardships and setbacks as she grows up, and some are completely devastating. She grows from being a sweet and loving child into an acerbic and unbending woman. She is fiercely loyal in her love and ardently forceful in her hate. It is clear that her circumstances have shaped her. Olivia's daily existence is a tribulation that most would shrink from. Though she handles her situation with poise, she also carries more than a little bitterness. Olivia is a complex woman who is stubborn and resigned, yet still somehow hopeful. When we finally resume the action in the present, Olivia is faced with the realization that someone is killing the wolves that have always been protected residents of her land. Along with her grandson William, she attempts to track down the hunters. What she discovers is more than a simple poaching scheme, and the effects will be volatile to herself and the community.

The secondary plot revolves around Ida, Olivia's mother, who lives in a tar paper shack on the edge of her property. Ida is a fantastically rash character. She is mentally ill and has been abusive towards Olivia all her life; there is no love lost between them. Though Ida was absent for most of Olivia's adolescence, she returns to the family and creates havoc and heartache for Olivia and her father. Through all of her erratic behavior, Olivia's father, Tate Harker, remains loyal and steadfast to her. Yet Ida shows no reciprocation towards Tate, and remains cruel and unyielding. One of the interesting aspects of this book was the portrayal of the mental hospitals of the day. When Ida must retreat to one of these hospitals, Olivia visits to inspect it, and it is harrowing. The women there are either forced to be immobile or locked in small cages. Electroshock is mentioned, as are head shavings and ice baths. I had trouble with this section of the book, as it seemed a savage fate for Ida, one that Olivia didn't fully ruminate on. Though Ida had made some very bad choices in her life and didn't feel even the slightest bit of remorse, the choice to send her to that facility seemed heinous. It seems the author's point was that Olivia couldn't forgive Ida for what she had done and that as far as she was concerned, Ida was irredeemable. I feel that this section of the book may disturb many readers, and it was the only thing that marred my pleasure in this book. It was the only piece in the book that didn't seem to fit. The blatant cruelty of the decision was shocking.

Another aspect of the story involved Olivia's current relationship with her former high school sweetheart, Wing Harris. Olivia and Wing had only a brief time together before events separated them. Wing watched with stolid silence as Olivia went through horrible stages of her life, offering any help he could, while Olivia in her pride rejected him. As the book progresses, Wing and Olivia tackle the obstacles involved in their reconciliation. It is not as easy for them to reunite as one would hope. I liked the character of Wing because he was noble in the face of all his humiliations and trials, and he was always there when it mattered. Wing was a likeable character. Though somewhat sedate, he was unflinching in his honesty and loyalty.

The segregated black community portrayed in this book is poignant and revealing. Though they must remain separate from the whites, even having separate days for shopping at the local store, they embrace Olivia and her family as one of their own. The community's hardships are not harped upon, but relayed with respect to the adversity they faced. It was touching to see that there could indeed be no separation of color as far as Olivia's family was concerned. Themes of racial acceptance, real or imagined, hoped for or denied, ran through the book.

But as wolves continue to be slaughtered, Olivia unwittingly places herself and those she loves into the hands of unjust men who are trying to keep a devastating underground society alive. The story becomes a race to save those she loves, and the town, from certain destruction. Great forces are aligned against her, and it was with great trepidation that I realized the odds were against her. The many tiny revelations, along with the great, kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering if there was more to come, wondering how much more she and those of the town could take. Malice and discord sweep through the pages as the truths are slowly picked out. In addition, there are mysteries surrounding her father, secrets shrouded in perplexity that may indicate that her father was not the man she once knew.

This book had me hooked from the very first pages. The hard-scrabble daily existence of the characters was captivating and engrossing. The economies that had to be made were many, and the details of 1930’s Kentucky were so precise that it was greatly absorbing. The language was rustic and simple, yet very clear and concise. I found myself wanting to know more about these people, to know more about their lives, hurts and victories. This book has a lot to say about the times that it portrays. The small issues and the great, neither is neglected. There are wise and humble characters as well as wicked and sinister ones. Love, anger, betrayal, duty, honor, racism, and death, forgiveness: they are all here. And the tapestry created is one of beautiful complexity.

By the end of the book, I was wishing I could spend more time with these characters, that they would not go. Aside from the aberration regarding the mental hospital, this was an outstanding debut novel. I will definitely read any other offerings from this author, and I wish her luck in her writing career.


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