Emmaline (“Emmy”) Nelson, 18, is living in a rural area of Minnesota in 1958 under the thumb of her mother Karin, a strict Lutheran who is “cold and firm, hardworking and driven, serving Jesus with her every breath.” But Karin’s idea of serving Jesus had nothing to do with a love of life or even a love of her family. Emmy wants to do good works in her life, but also wants to be a part of a larger world than the one circumscribed for her by her mother.
It is only when the family moves into town and Emmy makes new friends that she begins to see there could be so much more to her existence. She also meets an attractive boy who seems interested in her. But not only is Bobby Doyle Catholic (anathema to Emmy’s family), but Karin has already picked out a husband for Emmy: their neighbor Ambrose Brann, ten years older than Emmy and at best, as cold and uncaring as her mother. Moreover, Emmy is soon to discover that Ambrose is much, much worse. (Karin’s response? In essence, Karin tells her to “get used to it.”)
And yet there is still more Emmy uncovers once her eyes are opened, including a horrific and vicious white supremacist movement in her community, preaching its hatred, fear, and subjugation of women in the name of Christianity and patriotism. Yet, amazingly enough, this is just the tip of the iceberg of violence, abuse, hypocrisy and betrayal that Emmy discovers in the people around her. Can she save her friends or her sister? Can she save herself?
Discussion: I found Emmy’s existence suffocating; I wanted to scream during the first half of the book. Thus I found it hard to believe Emmy seemed less affected by it than I; she had an open mind and heart that was a bit hard (albeit not impossible) to believe, especially considering she wasn’t allowed even to read anything except “approved” books. From whence came her sense of right and wrong? Clearly not from her family, her acquaintances, or her church.
And although some people will enjoy it, I thought the author spent too much time and narration on her meticulous recreation of the 1950’s.
Evaluation: Almost every conceivable aspect of race, class, gender, and religion are explored in this late coming of age story. Book clubs will find this book full of issues for discussion.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015