I am ambivalent throughout this short novel, a tract of grief and loss so bare that the author’s pared-down prose mirrors the journey of a young girl from one loss to another, an existence defined not by bounty but by paucity.
When Avery’s younger sister, Jean Ann, drowns, the surviving six-year-old child assumes the burden of guilt, watching over time her father walk away from his family and her mother, Madeline, seek oblivion in bottles and men, never fully alive again after the death of her youngest child. (Steele never makes any attempt to give context to Madeline’s complete withdrawal or rejection of her other daughter. But then, that is her style—few words and fewer intimations of personality save in conversation.)
Shifted from men and motels to Madeline’s fundamentalist family in West Virginia, Avery’s world is a series of impressions—as is the reader’s—the child eventually raised in the desert of eastern Oregon by Paul and Mary. Unrelated to Avery, the couple welcomes the girl into their home, though the chill of her earlier experiences lies buried in the scars of a disintegrated family. Avery receives friendship in ample measure: from Lovell and his daughter, Lennie, who is Avery’s age, and from Paul and Mary and their grandson Davis, who loves Avery.
Watching their child grow within her, Avery is content until the loss of that child triggers the despair of the first loss, Jean Ann. Where Avery travels in her overwhelming grief is impossible for Davis to navigate, no matter how pure his love or his desire to help her heal. Steele delivers her protagonist into the arms of despair, a sense of dislocation so pervasive that the pain of Jean Ann’s death comes flooding back, swallowing the present and the voices of those who love her.
Avery’s childhood world is one where mercy does not dwell, the desert an apt metaphor for a child buffeted by neglect and the penurious exchange of affection even at the best of times. Her sojourn on earth, while never bounteous, is limned with the patience of a survivor, a girl capable of more than loss, though the task will require a lonely trek through all-too familiar territory before peace is found. There is something elementary in this novel, indestructible as the human spirit and expansive as the dusty soil where life continues to thrive, albeit in different form.
Not for everyone, Steele’s barren landscape is shorn of frivolity or the frolicking words of a joyful tale, as self-contained as her protagonist’s marginal acquaintance with excess of any kind save loss. To be free of the past is to embrace the future, but for Avery, such freedom is hard-won and demands time for healing. Because life is stronger than the siren call of death, Avery instinctively gravitates toward hope, finding a place for the emotional detritus of her life thus far.