It is arguably more difficult to raise children today than it was sixty years ago. Elvis Presley would be considered a weak distraction had he ever been pitted against a foe as powerful as cell phones and the internet. Susannah Delaney, the anxious and over protective parent in Kathleen McCleary’s latest novel A Simple Thing finds herself up against just such an adversary as she tries valiantly to regain control over the lives of her fourteen year old daughter, Katie, and ten year old son, Quinn.
The story begins following a weekend in which Susannah and her husband Matt have survived a series of frightening incidents, nerve wracking enough to unsettle the most experienced parent. Alcohol poisoning, bullying, and a contest sporting Katie’s virginity as the prize, lead Susannah to uproot her children from their comfortable Northern Virginia community and take them to live on one of the San Juan Islands. Susannah plans to stay on Sounder Island for the duration of the school year in order to get her children’s lives back on track, while Matt stays behind in Virginia keeping the home fires burning. In addition to worrying about her children’s welfare, Susannah finds herself consumed with guilt and anger over an event which occurred during her own teen years. Hoping to find strength and peace on the island, Susannah discovers that her issues have served only to push her children and husband further away.
Sounder is home to a mere seventy five inhabitants, provides patchy internet and cell phone service and little or no indoor plumbing. Upon her arrival on the island, Susannah meets Betty Pavalak, her landlady and guide while she and children live on the island. Betty is a seasoned islander who came to Sounder in the 1950’s, fulfilling a compromise between herself and her husband Bill, a restless soul determined to settle in Alaska. She has also suffered the trials and travails of a difficult marriage, but over the years has managed to find fulfillment on the island. A no-nonsense gal, she throws herself into working the family farm and raising their son while Bill spends six to nine months in Alaska working as a commercial crab fisherman. Betty and Susannah bond over the similar directions their lives have taken and become fast friends.
McCleary is an adept writer who handles a number of tricky literary hurdles. Flashbacks can be treacherous for writers, as they require the reader to change gears, often disrupting the novel’s flow. However, McCleary’s writing style is straight forward and fluid and by creating a past for her characters which is as substantial as their current circumstances, the novel traverses the time changes seamlessly.
Themes of single parenting, guilt, forgiveness and the necessity of letting go are expressed in a rugged environment depicted through the actions of characters ranging from Betty’s teenage twin grandsons, to a wise and stern Octogenarian who apparently has never worn shoes.
A Simple Thing is a great read for anyone who has questioned their ability and sanity in raising children, or anyone looking for a well written story. Be sure to block a generous amount of time for yourself, as McCleary’s latest is one that is tough to put down.