The Burden of Bringing Up Mother
Good-Bye and Keep Cold by Jenny Davis (Orchard Books: $12.95)
“Everybody has to raise their parents,” someone tells Edda Combs, the narrator of this odd story.
“Is that true?” Edda wonders. “I’ve done the best I could with mine.”
Indeed she has. “Good-Bye and Keep Cold” is set in rural Kentucky, where 8-year-old Edda’s father was been killed in a strip-mining accident. For the next 10 years, Edda “raises” her unhappy mother, Frances, who struggles from one emotional crisis to the next.
The situation is complex: Henry John, the man responsible for Ed Combs’ death, comes courting his widow, and Frances must deal with her ambivalent feelings--not only for Henry John but also with her anger at her dead husband. Henry’s courtship is alternately encouraged and rejected by the erratic Frances. She first idolizes Ed after his death but later feels she must (emotionally) “divorce.”
The reason for the rage is her discovery that Ed was unfaithful to her. It happens this way: A schoolmate taunts Edda, telling her her father had VD. Edda’s not sure what VD is, but she does understand that it has something to do with love and that her father got it from Annie, her mother’s best friend.
End of Friendship
In front of Annie, Edda blurts out what she heard to her mother. When Annie admits the affair, it ends the friendship, and it also brings the memory of Ed Combs crashing down off the altar. Edda beats up the boy who told her, and then learns that Annie fooled around with the boy’s father and gave him herpes. It’s all too much--too much for Edda, barely 12, and much too much for the novel, barely two-thirds through at that point.
Frances is a wearisome character--and a wearisome mother. She obviously loves her children and does what she can for them, but there are times when you want to shake her and say: “Grow up!”
Apparently Frances needs a long time to grow up, a long time to get over her rage and loss. Too often she simply isn’t there , and Edda is left to find her own way.
It’s not fair to criticize Frances Combs for not being in control of her life. But it is fair to criticize the author for not being in control of her characters.
This is Jenny Davis’ first novel. She writes well. She clearly knows the country hollers about which she writes, clearly loves the characters she has created. But she overburdens them, just as Frances has overburdened Edda, giving them too much to deal with, and staying with them over too many years.
Robert Frost Poem
The title of the book comes from a poem by Robert Frost, about young trees that could be killed if the temperature rises unseasonably and forces them to bud too soon. The orchard must come to maturity slowly, in its own time.
But this “young orchard” is kept cold for perhaps too long; the child who must be a parent to her own mother doesn’t have a chance to bloom until adulthood.
I wish, for the sake of the character as well as the sake of the book, that her time had come sooner.