Monday, March 21, 2022

the last book I read

My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Caroline's Mum has died, so now she lives with her father. Not that unusual, of course. And where do they live? Weeeeell slightly unusually they live in a series of makeshift shacks built from tarpaulins, branches and bits of moss in the vast area of Forest Park on the edge of Portland, Oregon. A thrilling environment for a thirteen-year-old, though, right? Well, yes, in some ways, although there are the mundane day-to-day concerns of keeping dry and warm, not getting assaulted and/or murdered, finding somewhere dry and secure to keep your stuff (or enduring having to carry it around with you) and not being discovered by the authorities, who take a dim view of this sort of thing.

Discovery is also a risk when Caroline and her father have to make their regular trips into the city (which is fortunately only a short walk away over the St. Johns Bridge) to buy food and supplies and also to collect and deposit Dad's monthly veteran's pension cheques, their only regular source of income. But you've got to eat, and while Caroline maintains a little vegetable patch in the forest that doesn't feed them both, and similarly while she and Dad are pretty crafty with the old Swiss army knife it's pretty difficult to whittle yourself a new pair of shoes out of tree bark when the old ones wear out. 

Nonetheless Caroline and Dad have managed to exist like this for about four years, since they were reunited in initially rather vague circumstances following Caroline's stint with some foster parents. But all good things come to an end, and, following a chance encounter where Caroline is spotted in the vicinity of their current lodgings by a jogger, The Man turns up, tooled up and in intimidating numbers and Caroline and Dad find themselves carted off to a place of confinement and questioning where they are kept separated from each other.

Caroline is placed in the care of some people who seem nice but are very curious about the exact details of her life in the forest with Dad and keen to determine how she's managed without formal education (answer: pretty well, as she's acquired a set of encyclopedias, so she's pretty much on top of any subject starting A to L). As apparently sympathetic as they are to their situation they aren't about to allow them to continue living in the forest; instead they arrange for Dad's practical outdoor skills to be put to use by finding him a job on a horse ranch, a job that comes with living quarters provided and the prospect of Caroline attending school like "normal" people. 

It is here that some cracks start to appear, in particular in Dad's psychological state - we already know he is a veteran and seems to be suffering from some form of PTSD, and he has constant dreams about helicopters from which he awakens in an agitated state. Nonetheless he is diligent about his work and Caroline is happy exploring the ranch and making plans for going to school. Then one night Dad decides that it's time for them to pack their bags, slip away and jump on a bus to who knows where. An escape from the gilded cage and the prying eye of The Man? Or a spectacular pissing on one's newly-acquired chips? You decide.

Things get more chaotic from here on - Dad and Caroline spend a period squatting in a condemned hotel block for a while and Dad accepts some shady and mysterious work from some shady characters to beef up their savings. Eventually it is decided that it's time to get out of the city and forage for nuts and berries in the countryside. It turns out that it may not have been the best time of year to make this decision, though, as once they've taken a bus journey into central Oregon Caroline and Dad soon find themselves trudging through snow and having to spend a series of fairly miserable nights either in the open or breaking into uninhabited buildings for shelter. This culminates in the bizarre episode where Caroline and Dad break into some sort of remote hut, powered by some sort of Heath Robinson series of wires spliced off a nearby power-line, only to find it already occupied by a woman and a boy, both A Bit Strange in some indefinable way - after it is agreed that they can stay the night Dad suggests that Caroline take the boy out to play in the snow in the morning so he and the woman can have "a chat". It's unclear whether Dad was expecting any jiggy-jiggy but that's not what ensues, or maybe it is and then an argument breaks out - either way when Caroline returns to the hut (meeting a hastily-departing woman on the way) she finds Dad entangled in the wires and clearly dead from a massive electric shock. 

After dragging his body to a more appropriate final resting place (a nearby cave), Caroline sets off on her own. She still has some of Dad's money (and access to future cheques until such time as the authorities learn of his death), but will she be able to manage without him? Or will she be better off without his increasingly erratic guidance?

I mean, PLOT SPOILERS and all, but the ending is more upbeat than you might expect from what's gone before: Caroline treks all the way to Boise, Idaho to revisit her childhood foster home and ponder on some of the questions raised (or, rather, implicitly invite the reader to ponder on them), like: why was Caroline put into foster care in the first place? Is the sister she grew up with, who she knew as Della, actually her real-life sister, as Dad had suggested? And given that he'd basically just turned up out of the blue one night and spirited her off, can we be sure he was actually her father after all? And what of her mother? None of these questions is answered in any definitive way but Caroline departs satisfied, returns to rural Oregon and finds herself an outdoorsy job that enables her to live as she wants.

My Abandonment is based on a curious real-life case from 2004 where a fiftysomething man and his daughter were discovered living in Forest Park in circumstances very similar to those described in the book. According to the news articles collected on the author's own website, the real-life story ends at the point the pair did a runner from their post-forest accommodation. Who knows what happened to the real-life pair after that, but this is the point in the fictional version where things really start to unravel, mainly through Dad's increasingly suspect decision-making and Caroline's growing awareness that he is not the rock-solid infallible life guide she'd always thought he was when she was younger. What was wrong, she thinks, with the nice little life we were starting to settle into at the ranch? I could have made some friends at the school. Would that really have been worse than dodging drug dealers in a derelict hotel, or shivering in a snowy field? Is this "freedom"? Is being warm and comfortable really so bad?

The circumstances of Dad's eventual demise are a bit odd, to say the least. I'm not sure what we are to make of the pair they meet in the little yurt with the power hook-up, who they assume are mother and son but turn out not to be. Why do they talk so strangely? Why are they both bald? What happened inside the yurt while Caroline was outside in the snow? How come the woman is so casual about having just committed a murder? The whole episode just seemed to have a slightly incongruous tone in comparison to the rest of the book. I suppose I should add that the ending seems slightly implausible as well, Caroline managing to re-integrate herself into society somewhat is a nice satisfying conclusion to her character arc but you can't help feeling there'd have been more difficulty involved in doing something as basic as applying for a library card if you'd basically disappeared from society for several years, and if you provided your real name or some real documents that would surely invite the possibility of setting some alarms off at whatever government agency prised her and Dad out of the forest camp in the first place.

You're inclined to let Caroline off, though, because she is a very appealing central character and you are rooting for things to work out for her. She's somewhat reminiscent of Ree in Winter's Bone: undemonstrative and a bit quiet to start with but developing a steely self-reliance as she gets older. The father/child relationship with the father's death at the end is also reminiscent of The Road, although the father here is a much more ambiguous character. The doomed desperation to stay away from any reliance on "society" with its money and television and cheeseburgers and squalid moral compromises is also slightly reminiscent of The Mosquito Coast (whose father figure also dies at the end).

The key with a novel written from the viewpoint of a thirteen-year-old girl (she's about seventeen by the epilogue at the end) who's obviously very bright but has had a rather unconventional upbringing is to make her voice convincing, something that will go unnoticed if you do it right, but will be jarring if you get it wrong. I think it's pretty well done here, Caroline being fairly na├»ve about many things and (at least at first) unquestioning about some of the odder aspects of her situation, and occasionally reeling off factoids and definitions that she's obviously memorised out of one of her encyclopedias. 

Some reservations about unanswered questions aside (mainly relating to Caroline's earlier childhood and the fatal interlude at the House Of Electric Death) this is powerful and engaging stuff, grappling with tricky questions about parenthood, trust, freedom and acceptable levels of state intrusion into people's lives, or, to look at it the other way round, the state's duty of care to prevent people fucking up their lives and the lives of their children. 

My Abandonment was adapted into a film called Leave No Trace in 2018, which appears to take some considerable liberties with the later stages of the plot, including leaving out the father's death.