Up From The Blue by Susan Henderson – review

(try two – my original of this vanished – thank goodness for amazon)

Up From The Blue begins in the hazy summer heat of 1975 (the year I was born, so
a lot of this world will be pretty familiar to people my age). Tillie, our main
character, is at that age caught between infancy and teenage-dom. Adults don’t
ever believe children that age can do anything alone or competently, yet expect
them to behave like mini adults. It’s a pressure cooker of expectation and chaos
for an eight year-old like Tillie.

Tillie has an older brother, who is
trying to force himself into the model son role; at the outset, the reason for
this isn’t quite clear. Once we are introduced to their parents, we find that
his behavior, as well as Tillie’s, is shaped by the dynamic at home. Her father
is a strictly upright Air Force colonel. Her mother is any stay-at-home mother,
searching for herself, trying to fit in, wanting the best for her children.
She’s intelligent, artistic, and loving. But she’s not successful at any of it;
she’s losing herself. Like an oil painting that had turpentine spilled on it,
Tillie’s mother is losing cohesion, and nobody knows how to repair

The story is easy to slip into; Susan Henderson has a way of writing
her reader into something of a trance. It’s a feeling as though you’ve stepped
into the house that had been your grandparents’ during your childhood –
everything is familiar, but changed. You might catch a scent, or see the old
wallpaper, and a million memories flood through.

It was hard at some
moments to look back and see the parallels, especially the one that was law in
our own house: “We don’t talk about things with anyone outside the family.” For
Tillie, this means that she eventually designs her own rules. She will keep her
own secrets. This is the true danger in the dichotomy of childhood – if we give
children too many burdens, complexities, or paradoxes, ultimately, they shape
their world to protect themselves and the ones they love.

Tillie’s mother
is the one she loves enough to protect, to reshape her life around, to break
every rule that might or might not exist…at some point, Tillie doesn’t care to
look back and check anymore. Everything is right if it’s done out of

Adults realize that love often isn’t quite enough to get by

Children don’t have all those bumps and bruises yet.

There’s a
wonderful languid awareness in the storytelling here – small particulars that
seem so familiar – you may find yourself saying, “I remember that!” several
dozen times – and the family dysfunction will certainly seem like something we
can all recognize. As with many books, I did long for just a *little* bit more,
just another few pages at the end, but in all, a satisfying book to read and
think on. If this book is seemingly a little too uncomfortably familiar, for
instance, you definitely must finish it, as I did. Because, in a way, I think
Tillie is waiting for people like us to forgive or be forgiven…only then can
she do the same.

Get it here – and trust me.


A confession background:

I mentioned earlier in another post that I’ve gotten to know Susan through several years of social media and playing at her litpark.com forum. She’s extremely generous with her time and encouragement, but that’s not why I’m giving this a review, much less a good one. It’s because I actually did like it.

I’d intended to read this book in October of 2011, as a “recovery” from a marathon I ran – it was all planned out, everything was set – and then the marathon took a bigger toll on me than expected, followed closely by an early snowstorm that knocked out power for a week. It’s funny how little things can knock you off-course…in a way, I think that’s what this book ultimately is. Life is little things, all bunched up or stretched out, but those are the things that will build you into the person you are for the rest of your life.

My grandmother, for instance, was raised by extended family – and it only took one unkind statement from an adult aunt to convince her for the rest of her life that she was “homely”. As in, “It’s a shame Helen, that you’re so homely.” Small things are the mortar – or the hammer.


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