A couple of months after their feckless, volatile father lands in jail, Mom drops the three girls off at Granny's one evening and doesn't come back for 16 years. Paula, age 4, and her sisters, Teresa, 6, and Penny, 3, prove too much for the old lady and enter into a long and rocky relationship with the Fresno, CA, foster care system.
Paula McLain's harrowing memoir of growing up among strangers who may or may not become family teems with complex, shifting emotions. Chief among them, especially in the early years, is fear, and the yearning to belong to a family, any family. But that was not to be. Not quite anyway. McLain's fluid prose captures the reader with its immediacy; its sense of urgency and its intimacy. This is a page-turner with real orphan children to root for.
It never seems to occur to the girls, as it does to the reader, that they could be separated. But they never are, which is the saving grace of stability that runs through their Dickensian childhood. Their first brief placement ends with a charge of thievery, but their second is a mystery. The Clapps are wealthy and their children are grown. Mrs. Clapp has no humor and no affection. Her rules and routines are rigid and she is fanatically house proud.
One rainy day after school, the girls slosh through puddles to the car. "Just as we got to the Cadillac, the sky started to drop hail like frozen BBs. Mrs. Clapp sat behind the wheel in her lavender rabbit-fur coat, her dry fingers toying with the door lock as though it were a chess piece, deciding whether she would let us into the car. We'd ruin it, we would."
So what does she want with three little girls? This is not McLain's question; it's the reader's, and McLain never comes out with the horrifying answer, either. She simply takes you there and lets you see for yourself how things are. The third placement, also brief, is the most heartbreaking. These people want children, delight in their new girls, and yet suddenly, mysteriously, it's over and the sisters find themselves with their fourth family in three years.
"If we felt any hope that this new situation would be different, then it was the stowaway version, small and pinching as pea gravel in a shoe." The Lindberghs make no secret of their reason for taking in three foster girls. Their daughter, Tina, is an only child and wants siblings. It's that simple. Bub Lindbergh is a big bear of a man, "easy to love," who teaches the girls to ride and gets each of them a pony, while his wife, Hilde, a German immigrant, is prickly and unpredictable. She spoils her "real" daughter and delights in telling perfect strangers the sad history of her foster daughters.
McLain's anger comes through in shock waves of description - hilarious bizarre incidents perpetrated by blotchy, oversize, cartoon character Lindberghs. Interspersed with moments of tenderness, even joy. McLain (her first book of poems, "Less of Her" was published in 1999) is a visual, visceral writer unafraid to mix brutal honesty and laughter. She and her sisters are not easy children and never lose sight of the fact that, unlike other children, they can be cast off at any time, their worldly possessions lumped in a trash bag in the back of the social worker's car. It's a scary way for a child to live.
McLain's memoir is many things: a gut-wrenching portrayal of growing up insecure and longing for love, a celebration of sibling solidarity, a catharsis and a satisfying revenge on people who once had the power, and will recognize themselves as they read. Funny, bleak, angry and winsome, McLain's debut is beautifully written and compulsively readable.