By Christine Davis Merriman
Green Writers Press, 2018
Sometimes you start a book, can’t put it down, and then, after you’ve let it sit a while, the questions it raises keep you up at night.
Such a book is Christine Davis Merriman’s debut novel. It is a quiet book, a story of an American family in the middle of the twentieth century. It is an unusual family, in that the father is 72 years old when his daughter Lissa, the first person protagonist, is born. What radiates from this book is the love between father and daughter, and the security provided by parents who work together as a team to bring up their two children. There is little drama in this book, and yet by the time she is twenty-two, when the book ends, Lissa has gone through experiences that don’t happen for many people until they are much older; that is, shouldering the responsibility for care of parents and household.
The question this book raised for me is, what is good parenting? Was Lissa’s elderly father selfish in insisting his daughter give up a chance for college to look after him? Is it a kind of selfishness to delay fatherhood until one is in the eighth decade of life? Was it a help or a hindrance to Lissa that her father kept her more or less sequestered – able to win a local beauty contest yet scarcely allowed to date?
This is a novel about America at the dawning of the digital age, a place and time that could give a bright young man without a college degree an excellent job. It reminds us too, of the social turmoil of the nineteen sixties and seventies; the disaster of the Vietnam War affecting all aspects of life. When Lissa attends USO dances, the only social activity her father permits, the fading, dusty, nineteen-forties décor of the club symbolizes the fracture of a country going to war for reasons that no longer made sense.
Throughout this lyrically written novel I felt a sense of danger always kept at bay, just barely, by the love of the family members for one another. The love was all- encompassing, secure, yet isolating in the extreme. The story becomes heartbreaking when the mother, Jimmie, dies young. Lissa’s sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to become a young woman without a mother’s guidance, is poignantly told. In addition, with Jimmie’s death the family’s main source of income and outside relationships dries up. Again, I asked the question, what makes good parenting? Family live nearby. It is an era when neighbors and friends were supposed to pitch in, and this conservative family certainly took no government help. But the children’s father makes no effort to involve anyone else in helping bring up the children. None of this is stated as a loss. Yet this reader felt it keenly.
At first I thought this book was an autobiography, and indeed, the author’s website indicates that she, like her protagonist Lissa, was born in 1950 to a mother who was 37 and a father who was 72 and often mistaken for her grandfather. As in the novel, the author’s mother died young and she took care of her father till he died. Christine Davis Merriman has turned this rich material into a novel, and her gift for language has turned life into real art.