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Elder Care

by Diane Freund
Harvest Books, 2001
Review by Marilyn Graves, Ph.D. on May 28th 2004

Four Corners

This novel is told as the first person narrative of a ten year old, Rainey.   Rainey's mother is in a mental institution when the mother's sister and her husband come to live with the family ostensibly to help the hard working father take care of his children.  Freund tells the story in short staccato sentences.  We see with a neutral camera's eye. Just the facts.  Perhaps this is the only way to view it as the characters including Rainey are oddly emotionally numb to the terrible existence they lead.  Rainey shows us her girlish snapshot of a dull, colorless, empty world.   The title of the book is taken from the name of the town.  The four corners are really three:  Moe's, the post office, and Willy's Garage.  The fourth corner is an empty space much like the empty space left by the absent mother.  Rainey has four siblings, two older and two much younger.   Rainey's aunt Merle brings her two children with her.  Merle is no mother substitute, cares for them only marginally and occasionally is extremely cruel.    

Rainey tries valiantly to fend for herself.  Freund's narrative is full of the things ten year old children find fascinating like all manner of bodily secretions, of picking scabs and eating them.  All this has a ring of truth about childhood.  The family group never talk about the absent mother or about any feelings at all.  They talk of making cocoa or rat babies.  Rainey says, "I hadn't thought of her in days.  At night, yes, when I was alone and the sky turned inexplicably white for an instant after the blue and before the black, then I thought of her saying softly, There's no use crying over spilled milk." (p. 16).

There is little emotional sustenance to be had but Rainey does not seem to regard this as odd.  It does not seem to occur to her that the life they live is horribly emotionally scarring.  (Not till Rainey is staying temporarily with the Zook family do we see a caring home.)   A visit from their mother sends the woman back to the institution again.  Rainey seems to believe that she and her siblings are to blame for their mother's plight.  Rainey is so emotionally starved for attention that when she is sexually molested by an adult in a theatre she is just grateful for the attention.  She says, "I wished with all my power that he would touch me again."  (p. 98) and then "For the first time in a long time I felt truly blessed." (p. 99). 

 The family rules seem to be that one does not complain about suffering.  Rainey's mother, still in grief about the loss of her brother in infancy, hallucinates hearing him.  Merle voices the reproach:  "It was all in her head.  There was no ghost.  Merle would bet her life on this.  So my mother just better knock it off." (p. 140).  Rainey says that she is like her mother in that she has a big imagination and that she is "gullible" (p. 148).  Rainey is also rather masochistic.  She will not scream or call to someone to help her when she is tied to a tree on a freezing cold day nor does she tell who did it. 

  The family seems to have rotten luck as one disaster and sickness after another occur.  When Rainey's mother is home again for a visit we see from her conversations with her sister that the bad luck has extended back to their parents' generation.  Conflict and tragedy consumed them.   Joan, Merle's daughter, and Merle become tangled in a relationship with the father and son of the neighboring family named Birdseye.  This leads to a disturbing and tragic blow up that changes all their lives.  Joan has the attention of the Birdseye men.  In the end, when Joan is out of the picture, Rainey seems anxious to step into her shoes:  "Eddie Birdseye was looking at me carefully.  Then he winked.  Right then, I know I would be next." (p. 240).    This appears to be what Rainey wants but is not likely to lead to a good end.

 This book may appeal most strongly to people who like realistic stories about real people.  People who are struggling to understand and come to terms with having lived in abusive or neglectful homes may well find this novel disturbing though very moving.



© 2004 Marilyn Graves


Marilyn Graves, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and topic editor of Psychology and Fiction at suite101.com.