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Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s as a creative child in a restrictive environment, Sally Wheeler struggles to cope with her mother Stella's increasing depression and estrangement from her family
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Sullivan, winner of Milkweed's 1996 National Fiction Prize for her fifth novel, this follow-up to The Cape Ann (1988), limns with discerning sympathy the struggle of a young girl to escape the terrible toll of a mother's mental illness. The story is set once again in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota; the time now is the mid-1930s, when Sally Wheeler's mother Stella begins having crying spells. She cries when Sally enters kindergarten, she cries in department stores, she cries over anything remotely sad. By the age of seven, Sally resolves that she will never cry as long as she lives. And while her mother gets worse, sinking farther and farther into a depression blamed on menopause, Sally struggles to live a normal life. Sullivan's insights into a child's desperate need for normality and acceptance give immediacy to her story. Close friends like Lark and Beverly- -characters from The Cape Ann--help, as do adults like Lark's mother Arlene Erhart and the widowed Mrs. Stillman and her shell- shocked son Hillyard. Grandparents are loving and attentive, and so is father Donald, but nothing can compensate Sally for her mother's worsening condition. Stella is eventually hospitalized; Sally and her father become the subjects of local prejudice; and, as Sally moves on to high school, these pressures take their toll: Her grades decline, she begins sleeping with boys, and she becomes involved with pathologically possessive Cole Barnstable. A drama teacher, recognizing her acting ability, helps her find some contentment, but when he dies in an accident, Sally falls apart, retreating into herself and cleaning house obsessively, although good friends do come through. Finally encouraged to realize her talents, Sally writes and stars in the ``The Kingdom of Making Sense,'' a play celebrating a place ``where everything is possible, for sadness rarely lasts beyond an hour.'' A perceptive and refreshingly unsensational account, if at times too slowly paced, of a child's determination to claim and affirm life. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.From Booklist:
In the late 1930s Stella Wheeler sinks deeper and deeper into despair as the townsfolk of Harvester, Minnesota, and especially her young daughter, Sally, watch and wonder. Stella cries frequently, forgoes all domestic chores, and withdraws into her memories. Sally passes through elementary school, where she narrates her second-grade Christmas pageant, delivers May baskets, and shares root beer floats with her friends Lark and Beverly. Yet, she yearns for a mother who isn't crazy. Stella's illness and later institutionalization tears at Sally and her father, who must cope with the shame of Stella being in the "bug house." During her senior year, the only class to hold Sally's attention is speech, in which the teacher, Drew Davis, introduces his students to the joys of the theater. Sally's jealous boyfriend, however, forces the teacher's resignation when Davis' homosexuality receives public airing. Although devastated, Sally clutches her emotions like a closed fist; she withdraws into herself and spends days savagely cleaning house, always with the fear that she may be following in her mother's footsteps. Jennifer Henderson
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