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A force of lyrical storytelling

Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie. Bell Bridge Books, 2009. 315 pages


Some of the most poignant passages in literature are uttered by children: Tom Sawyer, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter Bone — all are juvenile protagonists who relate the events of their lives with candor. Perhaps Kathryn Magendie gave her child protagonist a narrator’s “voice” because when a children address us, they usually speak with unabashed honesty, relating without guile, the anguish of growing up in a families shattered by either alcoholism, mental illness or divorce. In Kathryn Magendie’s Tender Graces, spunky, little Virginia Kate Carey must cope with all three.

Much of Virginia Kate’s childhood is spent in “By God West Virginia” where she and her brothers, Andy and Micah are the hapless pawns of their parents, Fredrick and Kate Ivene Carey — two ill-matched alcoholics. Like most children in an unstable home, the Carey kids survive by clinging together. They are also adept at drawing on inner resources. Micah, the oldest, paints, and as he grows older, his childish scrawls turn into provocative depictions of the world around him. The youngest, Andy, turns to sports. However, it is “Bug” (Virginia Kate) who keeps a diary; as she struggles to make sense of her mother’s violent rages and her father’s repeated absences, she sometimes withdraws into a fantasy world filled with nurturing spirits (including her beloved grandmother, who perished in a suspicious fire) and a mythical horse, Fionadala.

At the heart of Tender Graces resides Kate Carey, who is a deeply troubled and enigmatic woman with a perverse need to injure and reject those who are closest to her. Eventually, she drives Frederick away, and when he ends up in Louisiana with a divorce and a new wife, Kate’s destructive nature grows as she lashes out at her bewildered children and all of the attending relatives. Gradually, she banishes them, first Micah, then “Bug” and finally Andy, sending them to Louisiana to live with the Shakespeare-quoting, womanizer, Fredrick.

The traumatic impact of this dislocation is extensive, and all the Carey children will carry the subsequent scars for the rest of their lives. At this point, Tender Graces becomes a study in contrasts. West Virginia’s lofty mountains, cooling breezes and colorful relatives are replaced with heat, mimosa and alligators. Instead of Kate Carey’s dark beauty, her chaotic house and the ever-present smell of bourbon and Shalamar, Micah, Bug and Andy find pale, blond Rebekha and a neat house filled with color-coordinated rugs, drapes and towels. However, Rebekha is not the traditional Grimm Brothers fairytale stepmother, nor is the Louisiana household crawling with vicious relatives (Aunt Ruby in West Virginia is especially memorable) and carnal uncles. Gradually, the shame of being unloved is replaced with security, nurturing and kindness.

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Tender Graces contains a paradox. As the Carey children grow into teenagers, evolving into talented and capable adults, Virginia Kate continues to yearn for the approval and love of her unstable mother. Despite repeated rejections she harbors an irrational need to return to this selfish and drunken woman who has abdicated all of her maternal responsibilities. Eventually, it is clear that Virginia Kate’s bond with her mother will only be resolved by her mother’s death.

Kathryn Magendie has a marvelous talent for capturing the world of children. Andy, Bug and Micah emerge with distinct personalities, each with their own set of interests. Their daily lives are depicted with vibrant details. However, these children bear no resemblance to the usual characters in juvenile fiction. Magendie’s children talk with their mouths full of food, engage in endless (affectionate) taunting and often curse like longshoremen, and they all have the marvelous gift of exaggeration, especially Bug! (“I couldn’t talk because I had 40 frogs in my throat.”) Their speech is filled with references to period TV programs (Rawhide, Lassie, Elvis, The Wizard of Oz) and food (Zero candy bars, Orange Crush, etc.) It is a fully realized juvenile world filled with color, sound and smells.

There are also some tantalizing mysteries. What happened at the cabin on the hill where Virginia Kate sometimes sees her father? What dark secret does Micah conceal about the death of his Uncle Arvelle? Who is the mysterious “adopted child,” Anin?

Is there anything wrong with Tender Graces? Well, yes, although the flaws are minor compared with the numerous merits. These people eat too much! It is New Orleans food, of course, but I got heartburn. The latter part of the book gets dangerously close to a cloying sweetness and needed some brutal editing. There are too many characters — some of which vanish for such prolonged periods, I forgot who they were.

I suspect that there will be more books from Kathryn Megendie. In fact, Tender Graces probably needs a sequel. A book with this much vitality deserves a child/grandchild.

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