Monday, November 14, 2011

ALICE BLISS by Laura Harrington (2011) Viking Penguin, 306 pages

Alice Bliss is fourteen and will experience a lot of firsts in the next year: she'll learn how to drive, she'll feel the blush of first love, she'll manage to nurture a garden on her own, and she'll figure out how to survive her father's deployment in Iraq where he is so many thousands of miles from home.

With experience I've had facilitating children's groups for Bereaved Families of Ontario, I know both Alice and her younger sister Ellie's behaviour to ring true. Alice wears her dad Matt's shirt to feel closer to him, a continuing bond. She's furious when her mom launders the shirt, because now it won't smell at all like her dad's unique blend of "Sawdust. Wood smoke...Aftershave. Linseed oil." There is also the need for these girls to protect the surviving parent from further hurt as the children often become the caretakers when the dynamic shifts.

Before his departure, Matt is pragmatic. He shows Alice an envelope with "some important numbers. The VA so you can get benefits, my lawyer, my life insurance" and assures her that this information is "like carrying an umbrella in case it rains, and then it doesn't rain." This gesture reminded me of these frank lines from Frances Richey's poem "Inventory" about her son serving in Iraq:

Officer Record Brief
Hazardous Duty Orders
Zero Your Weapon

He’s given me his dog-eared copy of Komunyakaa’s
“Neon Vernacular,” underlined:
“We can transplant broken hearts/
but can we put goodness back into them?”

Life Insurance: to be split between Mom and Dad
Emergency Records ... who gets called
battalion wants to know what to read
at your funeral, what songs to play

He looks up from the paperwork,
hard into my eyes:
“You said you wanted to know.”

Now, Alice does not want to know the details that Matt offers up, but she needs to know, especially later when she searches her memories for guidance about what to do when it becomes clear that she and her mom and her sister must accommodate Matt's loss in their lives. As they launch their fragile flotilla to commemorate him, Alice realizes, that like any life, they are mutable: "just for a moment, a moment longer. Here. And then gone."