A Family of Our Own, by Donna Miller, book two of her Help Me, I’m Naked series of books, proves an excellent read on its own, honest and earnest, independently of the first and third books. Miller opens the story with a prologue, in a way that abruptly smacks of childlike innocence.
“My daddy would never do something like that for real. The arguing and fighting were plays they put on for my benefit, though my young mind couldn’t understand why they would want to perform such horrible plays. Sometimes I found the scenes so scary, so crimson, I would go hide in my closet.”
This sense of disbelief sets the stage for the body of the book, which is a memoir (with changed names) of the tragedies that she and the women and children in her family have endured, spanning the years 1966 through 1974, when the main character, Korel, is in grade seven to the age of twenty-three.
The severity of Korel’s own situation is hinted at through her sense of awe at finding herself in the midst of her new friend’s functional family. Contrasted against this, point blank, in chapter three, the storyline begins when Korel’s mother, Angelina, packs her and her daughter up to leave Joe, who slurs through the phone at his wife, “I’ve got a gun and I’m going to shoot you and Korel.” What an explosive, walloping statement, horrific, and fearful.
In addition to this, Korel’s inclination to keep the truth about the family abuse secret punches up against her mother’s proclivity towards telling the harsh truth, blindsiding anyone and everyone, waitresses and the like. Korel is trapped inside herself, battling her emotional pain, at times pushing others away and then contemplating in her journal about her loneliness. She cuts to the quick by poking at definitions of “faith” and “hope.” In writing this, what strikes me is that she and the other female characters in the book are trounced by hope.
Some of my favourite parts, which span Alberta and Saskatchewan, include: a classmate at Korel’s fifteenth birthday party says, “your mom can sure do the monkey,” Korel and her friends play at forming a band with brooms and kitchen pots as instruments, she paints her room magenta, her anguish over a teenage crush, and when she nicknames a “husky man” Marilyn Monroe because of the presence of a mole above his lip. I take particular delight in that artful moniker.
Among Miller’s strengths are: subtext, jarring transitions, dialogue and dialect, use of frankness over melodrama, indicating passage of time through music and fashion, and rounded characters that show good and bad sides of each. My fondness for the characters makes me want to get my hands on the first book in the series, Black Fury, and the third book in the series. I was clobbered by my intense enjoyment of the book, A Family of Our Own.
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