Gentle Touch Lightens a Serious Novel
A Bellsong for Sarah Raines by Bettie Cannon (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987; $12.95, 184 pages.)
A gentle, lyrical novel for young readers, “A Bellsong for Sarah Raines” approaches such sophisticated issues as suicide, sexuality and grief. Bettie Cannon seems to feel that teen-agers can understand these issues as well as adults, and the result is a finely wrought novel that never condescends to its audience.
When the book opens, 14-year-old Sarah Raines is packing to leave her hometown of Detroit and move with her mother to a small town in Kentucky, where she has never been before.
It is the Depression, and Sarah’s father, alcoholic and desperate, has committed suicide. Uncle Marsh, a stranger to Sarah until now, has come to collect mother and daughter and move them into his home. Sarah is not even given time to deal with her grief, for soon after the funeral, she and her mother are off to start their new lives.
The Raines’ existence in Detroit has been one of true poverty, and the author handles the descriptions well. A girl at school is described as hiding “in the girls’ bathroom during lunch period. Janelle didn’t want people to know that she had only a cold, boiled potato smeared with grape jelly for her lunch each day . . . .”
Families in the Depression
It is just this sort of detail that provides young readers with a sense of what life in the Depression was like for some families, and the descriptions here are far more vivid than those in any textbook.
Life in Kentucky is a step up, at least economically, but the Raines are left with the stigma of a suicide in the family, and Sarah’s mother decides that they will tell no one, that they will lie about the way in which Sarah’s father died. A self-inflicted gunshot wound becomes a heart attack, and Sarah must keep her grief to herself.
Her memories of her father are vivid and touching throughout: “She stood there in the dark remembering how Daddy would throw open the swinging door and blunder into Mama’s steamy kitchen, taking up all the room.”
The character of Uncle Marsh is depicted convincingly, and when Sarah finds him in bed with a woman, she feels personally betrayed. Only in Uncle Marsh’s speech later does the author falter a little, and the language feels forced: “Sarah, I do love you. But not . . . not that way. I love you because you are a child. Because you look like me. Because you are my blood and we have the same history . . . . I love you, but not the way I love Amanda. I love her because she is not familiar. Because I don’t see myself when I look at her. She has to do with my future, not my past. She is a woman.”
One wishes that Uncle Marsh had been a little less articulate with his feelings, and let some things remain unspoken but understood.
The end of the novel takes a surprisingly dramatic turn and author Cannon once again deals with death in a manner that is both serious and edifying. There is even a little bit of mysticism thrown in for good measure, as Sarah learns some folk medicine secrets from an old woman who is a practicing healer. (A spider web placed across a child’s wound stops the blood, and the reader becomes convinced that such a cure is possible.)
There is a lot of darkness in “A Bellsong for Sarah Raines,” but the author’s touch is light enough to turn that darkness into a young adult novel of significance.