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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: A Harrowing Life: The Lost Mother, by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking

Prepare to be grabbed by the first sentence in The Lost Mother by acclaimed author Mary McGarry Morris.

“They said it was bad for everyone, but nobody else the boy knew had to live in the woods.”

The next sentence surely won’t let you go, as much for the beauty of its words as the image they bring to mind.

“Even all these years later, with histories aligned — his own, the country’s — his dreams can still erupt in this welter of buggy heat, the leaf-rustling prowl of dark creatures a canvas thinness away, and stars, millions of stars so brilliant through the slant of the flap that with all the night sounds and sourceless shadows in wait the stars crackle around them as if the tent is an enormous boiling cauldron.”

Described as “one of our finest American writers” by the Miami Herald, Morris tells the story of the Talcotts, who live in rural Vermont during the Great Depression. According to press material, the book was “inspired by the author’s own family lore.”

The protagonist of the novel is Thomas, 12, and his defiant little sister Margaret, 8, who have been abandoned by their mother, Irene, a local beauty who leaves the family without a word.

Thomas is led to believe that their mother has gone to work in a factory in another town to make money during these hard times. He alternately thinks that it’s his fault, his sister’s fault, then his father’s fault that she’s gone, believing if he made things better and if his mother knew how bad things were without her, she’d come back. The reason she doesn’t have time to write her children, he’s convinced, must be because she’s working so hard.

While their taciturn father, Henry, works as a butcher or takes on any odd job he can find to buy food for his family, he doesn’t earn enough to pay rent. So the family lives in a tent in the woods, where the children are left to fend for themselves for days at a time.

Thomas becomes the caretaker of the family, alternating between frantic worry for his little sister and frustration with her inability to follow the rules he sets up to try to keep the family together.

During the long summer, when the children pick blackberries to earn money, their plight comes to the attention of a prosperous neighbor, Phyllis Farley, who longs to adopt Margaret as a companion for her strange housebound son. Thomas is accepted only because the neighbor understands that to get Margaret, she must take him. Thomas is bright enough to know that there’s more to the arrangement than generosity on the part of Mrs. Farley.

As the book progresses, the children are disappointed again and again by the adults in their lives — their self-absorbed mother, their beaten down father, their cruel landlord, their drunken aunt, their opportunistic neighbor, her depraved son, his weak father and the police who let money and power keep them from protecting those who need it most.

As their father’s efforts to support them fail again and again, the children end up homeless with only themselves to depend on.The book spares no punches as it tells the harrowing story of the Talcotts and the resiliency of the children. Powerfully written, the book gives an unflinching look at one family’s strength in nearly impossible tough times. This is one that will stay with you long after you read the last page.

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