Friday, December 31, 2010

Accidents of Birth: The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye by Bonnie Shimko

My mother tried to kill me before I was born. Even then I disappointed her.

When Mama got even meaner, Daddy took off. That woman never missed a chance to tell me how it was my fault that her husband left Sullivan's Falls with Margo LaRue, the town-hussy--at high noon, so everybody in town could witness the spectacle

Being named after Amelia Earhart by Grandaddy Thompson hasn't helped Amelia fly high; it seems that mama always manages somehow to shoot her down. Well into her forties when Amelia came along, Mama blames her husband's departure and the rest of her miseries on Amelia, dressing her in twenty-year-old hand-me-downs from her much older sister Charlotte and making her wear ugly, masking-tape-mended glasses for years. Amelia is an outcast at school, and her only support is her grandfather who loves her dearly. "All a person needs in life is one true friend," he says, but Amelia despairs of ever finding even that salvation.

And then Fancy Nelson comes to town--the first black child the town has ever seen. The daughter of a pretty and loving mother, hired as housekeeper for the influential town judge despite the small-town prejudices of Sullivan's Falls, Fancy has what Amelia wants and needs, a loving mother, nice clothes, and total comfort inside her own skin. And Fancy chooses her immediately as a friend.

When her Grandfather's stroke renders him speechless and he is sent to the local nursing home, Amelia turns to Fancy's family, a nurturing mother and the strangely fatherly Judge Watson as a surrogate for her own train wreck of a family. And as their friendship grows, Amelia begins to break out of the protective shell she has always worn at home and at school and try her wings a little, too.

Soon those closely kept family secrets begin to unwind, for Fancy as well as for Amelia. Amelia finds herself strangely drawn to the local Avon lady, that even Fancy calls "that floozy LaRue," even though she soon comes to realize that Margo is the woman for whom her missing father left town before her birth. Margo is still flamboyant, but she is also warm and honest, and like Fancy's mother, immediately sees the child inside Amelia who desperately needs mothering. As events unfold, Amelia and Fancy both uncover those hidden stories which have shaped their lives, and both are changed by what they learn. Then, Amelia's mother dies suddenly, bringing about an unforeseen change in her life and the revelation that her mother, unable to give her what she needed at her birth, has amazingly managed to give her exactly what she now needs to be reborn.

In The Private Thoughts of Amelia E. Rye (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010) author Bonnie Shimko has created a unique character of great resilience, humor, and independence, a worthy successor in the tradition of Scout Finch and Harriet M. Welch. Amelia Earhart Rye is a clear-eyed realist who has no dreams, but she does have the power to love, and when she breaks free, the metamorphosis is a joy to see. As Publishers Weekly puts it, "Shimko's story is original, and Amelia's distinctive voice and likable nature will have readers rooting for her in times of trouble and cheering her ultimate good fortune. The happy ending is immensely satisfying."

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