Child of My Heart is Alice McDermott’s fifth work of fiction. The fourth, Charming Billy, won the National Book Award, and was a best seller, as was At Weddings and Wakes. Both of these novels explore, subtly but ruthlessly, the same complex world—that of second- and third-generation emigrant Irish, living angry, ruined, melancholy, occasionally hopeful lives in and around Brooklyn and Queens, mainly in the Fifties and early Sixties, with summer vacations spent on Long Island. Both show the stories made from events as being coexistent with, different from, and frequently more important than the events themselves.
Both books are expertly told from multiple points of view—At Weddings and Wakes mainly by children but with slices of adult perspective, Charming Billy mainly by adults, with child’s-eye vignettes. Child of My Heart is different: it takes the world of Billy and Weddings and turns it inside out. Long Island is not an idyllic interlude—the place where Billy meets his false true love, the place where the kids can briefly escape the carpings, weepings, and wranglings of their extended family. Instead it’s almost the entire setting. And Child of My Heart has a single narrator; so, though it’s if anything even more focused on stories, and why and how we make them, and what we make out of them, these stories are all told to us by a single person.
That person is Theresa, fifteen-year-old baby sitter par excellence. Here it should be mentioned that if your preferred reading is about trench warfare and serial killers, this book is not for you. It is not a boys’ book: there’s a good deal too much diaper-changing and bottle-sucking in it for that. The characters are mostly children, and they behave a lot like real children—that is to say, often quite tediously. (Some readers may cherish the subversive hope, at least at moments, that Edward Gorey will turn up and hurl a few of the tinies off a plinth. To put it more kindly, this feeling may simply be a tribute to the author’s art.)
One of the noteworthy features about boys’ books is the absent center—a center we might call peacefulness, or the maternal principle, or home and hearth. The violent action of boys’ books takes place at the periphery, where the male musk oxen stand guard, backs turned to the cows and calves who are nevertheless the point of the exercise. In Moby-Dick, the quintessential boys’ book, there’s a telling interlude (in Chapter 87) during which the Pequod penetrates to the center of a large gathering of whales, where the mothers are nursing the babies, and where—despite the frenzied slaughter going on around the borders—the whales are mating. Ishmael comments,
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
From the point of view of action and adventure and narrative drive, what happens at the still center is nothing much. From the point of view of the “mute calm” and the “eternal mildness of joy,” what happens there is everything. Child of My Heart concerns itself with this nothing much, this everything—the almost timeless, action-free lagoon of the spirit, the territory of dalliance and delight—and also with its paradoxes, and also with how to make a story out of it.
Theresa is a storyteller herself, in more ways than one. She opens with an account of the truly outrageous whopper she concocted the previous winter with the collusion of her eight-year-old cousin Daisy, in order to fascinate and annoy Daisy’s numerous siblings—a yarn about a lollipop tree that appears once a year, in honor of a dead little boy. (When Theresa actually creates this lollipop tree later in the book, it carries an ominous charge.) Viewed as unusually competent, well-mannered, and trustworthy by adults, Theresa serves notice on the reader that she is in fact none of these things. Instead she’s a fantasist with more than a few secret plans.
Partly because of her ability to enter into their world, Theresa has a special knack with small children and animals. She flourishes during the golden age of baby-sitting—the Fifties, when the baby boom was in full spate and infants were busting out all over, but the dependable, trained live-in nannies of the Twenties and Thirties had disappeared; and, unlike the mother whales in Moby-Dick, the mothers in Child of My Heart have abdicated. At least ten years before the advent of the women’s movement, they are in full flight—off to the city, up to no good, getting divorced. The fed-up slamming of their car doors and the wailing of their abandoned kids resounds throughout the book. An entire generation of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls was recruited to fill the gap, leaving many a toddler in the hands of girls only marginally capable of looking after them.
Theresa is made of solider stuff, however, at least in her own eyes, and she’s certainly experienced, having begun to baby-sit at the age of ten. Her doting parents, viewing her as exceptionally beautiful, have moved to East Hampton, on Long Island, for the express purpose of casting their only child in the way of the rich and eligible Prince Charmings they believe inhabit the place; they push her toward the homes of the affluent, hoping for some matrimonial talent-spotting. Theresa’s motives are different: she likes taking care of children because she can cast them in her own inner dramas and dress them up for their parts. A lot of attention is thus paid to the weaving of floral garlands, the braiding of beribboned hairdos, and the putting on and taking off of outfits, as well as to hugging and stroking—dalliance and delight, nonsexual, but sensual nonetheless.
Theresa is aptly named. Her patron saint is Theresa of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” author of The Story of a Soul, a book which recounts the coming to God through humble daily activities. (There are certainly a lot of those in this novel.) But there are two other saintly Teresas, each with symbolic possibilities. There’s Mother Teresa—we learn on the first page, when our Theresa makes a nest for a clutch of expiring baby rabbits, that this girl is heavily into palliative care. And then there’s Teresa of Avila, she of the trances and barefoot nuns.
One of Teresa of Avila’s major works is The Castle of the Imagination, which could well act as a subtitle for this book; for imagination is not only Theresa’s solace, it is her weapon. There are no villains in Child of My Heart; instead there is mortality. Et in Arcadia Ego is a promising slogan for any novelist when things are looking a bit too tranquil, and Death is present even on Long Island, even in the golden summertime; for Child of My Heart is—on one level—a meditation on the massacre of the innocents. In the course of the book, Death does away with one cat (squashed by a car), one dog (shot for biting), three newborn rabbits (“Not meant to live”), and one child, also not meant to live. There are a couple of near misses: the five neighboring Moran kids, neglected by their slut of a mother and bursting with chaotic vitality, seem perpetually on the verge of doing one another in or killing themselves by accident: they usually appear dripping with blood, which Theresa mops up. She is young enough to believe that she can actually do something about mortality; she sets herself against it in every way she can. “It was the worst thing,” thinks Theresa as she recalls the grisly skull of a recently mangled cat. “It was what I was up against.”
The summer the grown-up narrator is describing is “the summer Daisy came.” Girls named Daisy have a thin time of it in American literature, in memory perhaps of Faust‘s Marguerite: James’s Daisy Miller dies young of an excess of innocent romanticism; Fitzgerald’s Daisy reaches for a star that turns to mud. McDermott links her Daisy to two lesser namesakes, Daisy Mae, the indigent, scantily clad, perennially disappointed ingenue of Al Capp’s comic strip of the period, L’il Abner, and the sweet, bicycle-built-for-two Daisy of the song, who has answers true but isn’t going to get much in the way of prosperity in exchange for them. Daisy—“Margaret Mary”—is thus “poor Daisy” both by literary inheritance and by fate. (We suspect that Hopkins’s young Margaret, grieving for Goldengrove unleaving—for time and death, “the blight man was born for”—is lurking somewhere in the vicinity as well.)
Shortly after Daisy arrives, Theresa notices that she has some odd bruises, bruises she at first attributes to the fact that Daisy lives in a rough-and-tumble household with many brothers in it. But the bruises don’t fade, and more of them mysteriously appear. What is wrong with Daisy? Theresa doesn’t know, but she knows these bruises are the mark of mortality, the mark of her dire enemy. She does her best to cover them up, to erase them, by slathering them in Noxzema, by trying out a little sea-bathing and faith-healing, by telling the worried Daisy comforting fictions and invoking the eventually cured Tiny Tim, and by keeping the bruises secret from the adult world that would only verify catastrophe and take Daisy away. Perhaps her efforts will prove useless: “I had begun to suspect,” she tells us, “that God and I…weren’t seeing eye to eye.” “You could reimagine, rename, things all you wanted, but it was flesh, somehow, that would not relent,” she realizes later. However, as with the rabbit babies, she struggles on.
Daisy has been invited to visit partly because Theresa feels sorry for her and is a rescuer—it will do Daisy good to get away from her strict, penny-pinching family in Queens and her too-numerous siblings, especially her whiney, attention-grabbing, smart, chubby, blowfish-toothed older sister, Bernadette; and partly because Daisy is enough like Theresa to be a full participant in Theresa’s somewhat Gothic inner world, where magical thinking is the order of the day. Another subtitle of this book might be “The Uses of Enchantment,” for references to centaurs, leprechauns, fairies, dragons, spells, ghosts, and charms are sprinkled throughout.
The two emotional poles of the book are represented by two plays of Shakespeare’s, plays Theresa has read or acted in at school. The comic pole—where, despite sorrows and confusions, all ends happily—is represented by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theresa is a theatrical girl, and as the book opens she tells us she’s been in the habit of casting herself as Titania, with her infant charges taking the parts of her attendant fairies. (She’s actually nicknamed two of them Peaseblossom and Cobweb; luckily she knows this is silly and funny, or, like Dorothy Parker’s Constant Reader, we might throw up.)
Titania has some peculiar sexual adventures in a wood, and so does Theresa. One of her charges—the only one she actually gets paid for—is Flora, the toddler daughter of a wrinkly but lecherous artist, who lives in a house surrounded by an entangling forest. At first you might think this old goat has been cast in the role of Bottom the Weaver, with his donkey’s head; certainly the ancient creature has a lot of besotted women inexplicably dancing attendance, including his housekeeper and a party guest who just wanders through. Who has dribbled what sort of magic flower juice into Theresa’s eyes to get her to toss away her chance at Prince Charming and assume the horizontal with this avid but crumbling lust-for-life gent? (A gent who wonders out loud, not incidentally, how much extra time he’d get if he were to play the ogre and gobble up, not only Daisy and Theresa, but his own daughter as well.)
We suspect that instead of foolish, clumsy Bottom, he represents Oberon, “king of shadows”—far from a reassuring figure, but a potent one, since he is also, by folk tradition, king of the underworld. This man’s studio is rendered by means of shadows, a place of “pale, enchanted light,” and he himself evokes for Theresa the dust he will shortly become. If mortality is your enemy and you don’t understand it, why not go to the expert? “Dusty death,” Theresa quotes, as the emphasis shifts to Macbeth, the tragic pole of the story, devoid of happy endings and replete with stains, like Daisy’s, that can’t be cured. At school, Theresa has acted the role of Macduff, whose children are all slaughtered. Explaining her understated dramatic interpretation to the old painter—her only confidant in the matter of Daisy’s illness—she says, “‘I just said it like it was something he always knew was going to happen…. I said, ‘Heaven looked on, and would not take their part’—not a question, like he always knew.”
The artist understands her concerns, as others have not, because he knows about death. In a sense, he is Dusty Death personified, and Theresa has sex with him—only once—on his day bed, described as a bier. This act is not much like a joyous roll in the hay: no dalliance and delight. Instead it’s more like a ritual. Theresa’s motives are not sexual: desire doesn’t apply. She once overheard an incoherent version of desire when some of her previous employers had a noisy afternoon quickie—“Oh, what happened? Oh, where is it?” she thought the woman was crying, “but in a language I didn’t know”; however, this isn’t what she’s after. What she wants is a trade: innocence for knowledge, blood for artistic power; for concealed deep within this seemingly artless book is a Bildungsroman, the title of which might well be “How the Artist Got Her Art,” or even “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby Sitter.”
For Mr. Unnamed Dusty Death is an artist, and he’s got what she wants. Whether his “work” will last or not, he’s got the impulse, the drive, the desperation, the key to the kingdom of shadows; and what she feels toward him is not lust, but “complicity.” The gift she receives from him is a “dark, sharp jewel”—another of the dark jewels that shine here and there, both in the stories of babies’ tears turned into gems that Theresa tells, but also on Daisy’s adored but tawdry plastic shoes and in the sounds of overheard sex—precious things, but sinister too, with pain and loss in them.
Here it’s worth mentioning the changes rung on the word “work.” Baby-sitting is work, being happy is work, crying is work, making a lollipop tree is work, and art is work—though perhaps the old artist’s pictures may “come to nothing at all. Not work at all, but play, pretending.” What then are the kinds of work that are not pretending, that will indeed come to something? Those that have value in the worlds of the three Saint Theresas, perhaps, which are a lot like many of the things McDermott has put into this book—joy in the “peaceful contentments” of daily life, care for others involving hopeless hope, and especially the Castle of the Imagination, made of “clouds” though Theresa knows it to be.
Daisy’s death from her illness, the narrator tells us, “while it may well be the end point of this particular story… is not, after all, the reason I tell it….” What then is the reason? Grown-ups cluster around the young Theresa like the good and bad fairies around Sleeping Beauty, making predictions about her future: she will marry well, she will marry a clam digger and have twelve children, she will become a model. We aren’t told what has actually become of her in “real life”: what she is for us, however, is the voice that tells the story. Like the yarns Theresa spins when younger, this one is a charm, a spell, and its ambitions are large. The old painter is her model,
in his kingdom by the sea, where art was what he said it was and the limits of time and age were banished and everything was possible because everything that mattered was inside his head.
As a spell-weaver, Theresa wants nothing less than to reverse time, and to bring Daisy back from the dead.
The narrator knows the ice she’s sliding on is risky. Stories about dead children—children too good for this world, or probably, in reality, too exhausted to be naughty—are tricky, growing as they do in the shadow of Little Nell and a fair amount of lugubrious olden-time sentimental glop. She attempts to distance herself from such conventions by having them erased:
…The songs, the foolish tales of children’s tragic premonitions. I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesn’t happen…. Out of my head and more to my liking: a kingdom by the sea, eternal summer, a brush of fairy wings and all dark things banished, age, cruelty, pain, poor dogs, dead cats, harried parents, lonely children, all the coming griefs, all the sentimental, maudlin tales fashioned out of the death of children.
Not possible, of course. The giveaway is the “kingdom by the sea,” quoted from that quintessential dead-girl poem, Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” The kingdom by the sea, enchanted though it is, contains a tomb. However hard you try, you can’t get the ego out of Arcadia.
But you can do the next best thing: you can take out your sharp, dark jewel of art, the one with pain and loss at the center, and you can write a story about a dead child who is not yet dead, and thus have Daisy live again in an eternal summer of your own concoction, and hope things don’t get too maudlin, and that the spell will hold. It’s an old attempt—at least as old as Dante, certainly as old as Proust—and a brave effort. Read as stark realism—a thing Alice McDermott has been much praised for—this richly textured, intricately woven, novella-like novel doesn’t altogether come off. But read instead as a work not only of, but about, the imagination—an imagination that works through oblique reference and pattern and symbolism as much as through observed detail—it’s entirely convincing.