I was deep into a lonely night in a hotel room in Mexico, going toe-to-toe with an acute case of insomnia, when I queued up the 1998 indie movie Smoke Signals (based on a short story by Sherman Alexie) on my iPad. It's a sad story about our relationships with our fathers, and I was only a couple months removed from the death of my own father when I loaded it on my tablet for the trip. I knew watching it would probably destroy me, and when I pressed play it proceeded to. I hoped that, in the depths of my own continuing sadness, experiencing something outside of myself that was also sad would somehow help me cope. For many of us, music, movies or literature that carry a cloud of gloom with them often, crazily, make us feel better. In my case, watching the movie did its job; I laughed, I sobbed and I ultimately fell asleep.
That sorrow worked for me in a way the sorrow of Call Me Home, the debut novel by Megan Kruse, did not. The deep sadness in Smoke Signals was mixed with a substantial measure of warmth and humor. Call Me Home lacks those qualities. Kruse comes out swinging, hitting us again and again in the heart, showing mercy to neither the reader nor her beleaguered characters. I don't think any of them even manage a smile until the very last, thinning pages of the book. I'm not saying that's a bad thing—in many ways it seems a category of literature all its own—I'm just saying you need to be prepared to be miserable reading this novel. Depending on what you want from your books, Call Me Home could be the best book you read all year.
Call Me Home is the story of Amy, a 37-year-old mother, and her two children: 13-year-old Lydia and 18-year-old Jackson, who is gay. They are trying to escape their rural exile in Tulalip, Wash., and the orbit of their father, Gary, who is brutally abusive to Amy. We learn that Amy and Gary met as young adults in Texas, where they were both born and raised, married after the briefest of courtships, then relocated to the Pacific Northwest, away from their families. Jackson came shortly after, and Lydia arrived five years later. That's when Gary first struck Amy, and the abuse has progressively gotten worse. Amy has decided that in order to protect her children from the rage of their father, who has so far only raised his hands against his wife, she must take them and disappear. She has made the attempt a couple times without success, and this time hopes to make it stick.
The story is told not so much in chapters but as a series of vignettes from different perspectives, rotating between Amy and Jackson in third person, and Lydia in first. For reasons I won't spoil here, the escape is pulled off in a way that leaves Amy and Lydia separated from Jackson, and their stories unfold separately. The two women head first to New Mexico and on to Texas, while Jackson moves to Portland, then relocates again when he gets an opportunity to join a construction crew in Idaho. None of them experience soft landings.
The writing is beautiful—some of the best I've read recently. Kruse has a true gift for storytelling, and her descriptions of the landscapes the characters move through, both internal and external, are exquisite. Hell, the book wouldn't be so bleak in the hands of a lesser writer, it would merely seem exploitive. Does the world really need another story focusing on beaten women and children? In Kruse's capable hands, I would say, yes, it does.
If I have any criticism for Call Me Home, other than it being merciless, it's the portrayal of Gary, the husband and father. What about his part of the story? He doesn't get one. We get glimpses—hints of a troubled youth. It is a short book, but I think there would have been room to give him a perspective as well. Why is he like this? What fanned the flames of his fears and jealousies to ultimately make him turn violent? Instead, he seems to exist as little more than the faceless villain, no more knowable than a fire burning through the other characters' lives. Gary's deeper story obviously wasn't part of the tale Kruse wanted to tell, but I think including him would have made a good book great.
Megan Kruse reads from Call Me Home at Fact & Fiction Thu., March 26, at 7 PM.