Mary McGarry Morris has written an engrossing and compassionate novel on the loss of innocence and redemption of the spirit in a world defined by economic chaos and the constant threat of homelessness. Against the background of the Great Depression, where many lose their land and wander the country in search of work and shelter, it is not uncommon for children to be stranded, the detritus of the American dream.
When the beautiful Irene Talcott abandons her husband and two children in Vermont, Henry Talcott must leave eight-year-old Margaret and twelve-year-old Thomas with whatever family can temporarily care for them. Margaret is an attractive and gregarious child, but her need for attention draws the notice of strangers, putting brother and sister in constant jeopardy. Thomas is too young to assume the role of mother, yearning for his own lost childhood.
The small family is faced with insurmountable problems, each home eventually unbearable: Gladys Bibeau loves the children, but her senile father demands all of his daughter's attentions; Aunt Lena and Uncle Max depend upon Lena's income as a hairdresser, her clientele become scarce as the daily drinking alienates even her husband; Mr. Farley, now the owner of Talcott's farm, is happy to see Henry in reduced circumstances, but his wife, Phyllis, covets the charming and pretty Margaret, scheming for custody of the girl, but not her brother. The children's naiveté contrasts sharply with the self-serving hypocrisy of Phillis Farley, a woman who sacrifices their innocence for the satiety of her broken fifteen-year-old son, his mind as distorted as his invalid body.
The good intentions of Morris’ complex characters are warped by their selfish motives and innate lack of compassion, as the author deftly exposes the indifference of a bureaucratic system blinded to its own inadequacies, brother and sister still reeling from the loss of their mother in this classic battle of good and evil. For her part, the beautiful Irene is deeply flawed but sympathetic, longing for a better life than her marriage offers, driven by guilt and incapable of giving her children the emotional security they deserve.
This chilling tale is consistently fraught with tension, the human condition this author’s forte. It is impossible to imagine more frightening circumstances than those the Talcott children endure in the name of love, clinging to their faith in the one man who may avert a fate to terrible to bear. This extraordinary novel never misses a beat, rolling like a freight train towards its shocking conclusion. Like the desperate boy and girl in The Night of the Hunter, Thomas and Margaret leave a lasting imprint on the reader, a compelling glimpse into the dark heart of an indifferent fate.