Merullo fashions a novel of hope from despair, abuse, and the ugly things the world does to children. Marjorie Richards speaks the broken phrases of her parents’ ignorance in New Hampshire’s north woods, their isolated cabin and small, twisted lives circumscribed by want, fear, suspicion and a preacher who encourages worship couched in “a willingness to be convinced that their worst impulses are actually the word of God.” Reared as a burden, at seventeen Margie finds respite at school, returning home to violence or passive indifference, a father and mother whose world does not include nurturing their child, advocates only of punishment and penance, dousing, boying, facing, terms that become too familiar by the end of the novel.
The story evolves on two levels, the one of school and community and the ominous darkness of the woods, where the sun never shines and compassion never penetrates, save in the spirit of a young woman who loves these monsters masquerading as parents, seeks God’s forgiveness and guidance, a sympathetic presence in a lonely life, harmony a vague concept in the corner of her soul. But it is not in the nature of the downtrodden to harbor hope. The sole voice of reason is Margie’s Aunt Elaine, half-sister to the girl’s mother, Emmy. When Elaine provides a link to an after-school job with Sand, a stonemason building a “cathedral” on the site of rubble in town, Marjorie’s parents allow their daughter to learn the trade, the promise of money too tempting to resist.
A crack opens in Margie’s cramped existence, one that will eventually flood her with courage and opportunity but entail a life-and-death struggle between the known and the unknown. Like Dorothys Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Margie is pulled in two directions but unable to make the leap to safety and transition into sanity, a battered child whose instinct is to return to the pain she knows. The punishment for transgression is far too severe to risk the wrath of a father with killer’s eyes and a vicious, vindictive mother. Margie’s struggle becomes all too familiar: the threat, the violence of sustained survival in such a home, the aspirations of a larger life both fragile and tentative: “In the world Aunt Elaine was describing I would have so much to lose.”
It’s hard to imagine such people and painful to read such a tale, though clearly such dreadful conditions exist - not only in the rural north woods but in populated cities where children’s welfare is unheeded in an over-burdened society. But in this courageous tale, slowly, inexorably, Margie’s independence grows, a small flame she nurtures out of the sight of vigilant parents until she gathers the strength to leave for good.
In the prologue to her story, Margie describes the inner terrain of an abused child: “The hurt burrows down inside and makes a kind of museum there.” In Merullo’s disturbing exploration of the underbelly of society’s most damaged individuals, we learn well Margie’s broken language and the specific nature of her fears, examine the artifacts in a nightmarish museum that have the power to break a girl in half. It is an ugly place, a harrowing journey from slavery to freedom. The author is unsparing and unsentimental, the excruciating trek from one world to another hard won and often bloody.