The Center of Everything
Laura Moriarty
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The Center of Everything
Laura Moriarty
339 pages
July 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Evelyn Bucknow is a smart ten-year-old girl who lives alone with her mom, Tina, in rural Kansas. A father is not in the picture. Boyfriends court Mom occasionally, but, like her mother's jobs, they don't stay for long. In The Center of Everything, Laura Moriarty's first novel, Evelyn learns to understand adults, to take care of herself, and to make her own luck in the often-unlucky situation that presents itself to her. She is a precocious and resilient child.

It's not that Tina doesn't love her daughter. She does, but she is unequipped or incapacitated to know how to care for her. She had Evelyn very young, and doesn't have many job or housekeeping skills to provide for the two of them in any sort of "conventional" way. For example, one evening, as they watch TV (Ronald Reagan is president), Evelyn notes, "Right now, she's supposed to be in the kitchen, making us grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, but she came out to the front room when she heard Ronald Reagan's voice, and now she's just standing there with the spatula, looking at the television and shaking her head until I can smell smoke coming from the kitchen, the bread starting to burn." This is not an uncommon occurrence, nor is grilled cheese by itself for dinner.

But Evelyn and Tina do get by, usually. Although Tina might be considered negligent, she is not mean; the narrator does not paint her as a deliberately harmful mother. Rather, Tina is young and inexperienced. Her mother lives nearby, and Eileen provides a more stable, if fundamentalist Christian, presence for the two younger generations when they need her. They love each other.

Yet despite the best of intentions, times do occasionally get quite tough. Some days there is almost nothing in the house to eat, and Evelyn's mother doesn't get out of bed until noon. She sometimes doesn't wash her hair for weeks. Her mother goes through several depressive stages, which Evelyn learns to deal with:

"She[Mom] says she is just having a bad time right now, but she still loves me. I am her little light in the world, she says, and she will always take care of me. Everything will be okay. I don't say anything, but in my head, things have changed. I've drawn a line between us, the difference between her and me. "
The reason for the book's title, by the way, is that, when she looks at a map, Evelyn realizes that her community in Kansas is right smack in the center of the country.

Tina becomes pregnant by a married man who, predictably, leaves town with no forwarding phone or address. Having an abortion or giving up the child for adoption are not options, so she has the baby. This creates yet more problems, but also opportunities for growth. Young Samuel is mentally retarded. He never does learn to speak, but he can hear and respond and he is capable of limited learning.

As a teenager, Evelyn falls in love with a childhood friend and confidant, but then her best friend, more physically stunning, snags the boy's affections. Another pregnancy occurs, and in her late teens, Evelyn turns babysitter. Most things don't turn out exactly the way she hopes, yet she does not fall into the baby trap as her mother and friend have done. Evelyn is cautious and hedges all her bets; she has learned that from watching her mother.

Even though this could be yet another terribly sad story about a dysfunctional family, it is not merely that. Moriarty has a fine-tuned sense of humor, she is empathetic to her characters, and she tells it as it is without laying blame. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people, and many times those people manage to go on. In the end, both female characters, mother and daughter, grow up a good deal. Moriarty has painted a memorable example of a new type of family. She has managed to leave us with some hope. I was sorry to see the story end.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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