Review of Lily Harp: A Novella, by Stacy Barton (Wordfarm, 2015), reviewed by Jim Prothero.
I want to say from the start that calling this a novella doesn't do it justice. A novella is understood to be a longish short story that got away. I'm not sure who assumed the authority to define such matters, but this little book has certain qualities that force me to conclude that it is a novel. Lily Harp herself, the protagonist for whom the novel is named, is seventeen, orphaned, living with her grandfather on a small island off the Florida coast, and very pregnant. That set-up right there is enough to get it classified as a young adult novel. As a long-time high school teacher, I know teens, especially girls, like to read stories that have an edgy, almost frightening set-up. I have often wondered if this isn't because they need to confront their own fears or perhaps even memories of evil times. At this point, Lily Harp could have devolved into a string of conflicts, sort of a postmodern tear-jerker for teens. The beauty of this story is that it did not do so.
Lily's conflicts are authentic, not just dredged up to create drama. Her doubts and fears are weighed by moments of struggling faith. Even the antagonist, Aunt Vi, is a balanced character, relentlessly trying to get Lily to do the "proper thing" and give up her baby for adoption, but doing so from both fear and love. There are no mouth-breathing, Darth-Vaderish bad guys here. There are only people who fear and love and hope. Among the most memorable are the old codgers that Lily's grandfather hangs out with on the boat dock who assume the collective role of father for Lily. And in this small space of pages, Barton is able to do so nicely what Anthony Trollope accomplishes in far more pages,that is, to take a character and make not only a breathing, real human being, but beyond that to make that character memorable. We would know Lily if we met her on some Florida boat dock. She is larger than her character; she is a kind of flawed purity, made more pure by the flaws, a portrait of what living bravely and well looks like in this world that both loves and hates heroes.
One recurring image that combines faith and fear and wonder is the virgin and child, the Madonna. A young Mexican man, Miguel, gives Lily a card with Our Lady of Guadalupe on it and the assurance that a child is a gift of God. As Lily goes out to meet Miguel, finding herself attracted to him, she looks at her very pregnant self and says, "In the end I picked out a pretty pink shirt to wear under the overalls, it rolled up my belly underneath, but no one could see, and smoothed my hair into a pony tail. I checked myself in the mirror, and although my belly was huge, I was surprised how pretty I looked. Like Mary, I thought." The Madonna image repeats itself in several other characters, not just Lily. Lily's midwife, a middle-age black woman, is an adoptive mother to a young girl with Down's Syndrome and a wide-open heart. As Lily is arriving at her grandfather's island house, she remembers her dead mother's love for the Hail Mary prayer and tries to imagine God as a mother. And finally, her grandfather gives Lily her grandmother's rosary, which Lily wears around her neck, even as she is giving birth alone in a tropical storm. Through all this multi-layered imagery of faith and fear, of mother and child, of God as a mother, Barton challenges the reader to consider love and faith, foolishness and grace, with skill and with subtlety.
Let me also say a word about the twelve short stories that follow the novella at the end of the book. The stories are very short, sometimes little more than scenes. The term vignettes comes to mind. But despite the brevity, they are all developed with great attention to detail. The two that stand out to me, "Beside the Road" and "One Small Prayer," both have that quality. They cover very short moments of time but in those moments, enormous and small things paradoxically happen at once. In "Beside the Road," a girl who is mourning the death of her uncle manages to pull her grieving father away from the baseball game on TV, out to the stoop of their house to feel the powerful pull of the wind when large trucks blow by. She hands her father a crow feather to hold, so that he might feel the force when the suction pulls the feather out of his hand. The act is symbolic and mythic on more levels than I have space here to discuss. The father finally weeps, holding his daughter, her mythic act having allowed him to vent his grief.
In "One Small Prayer," a young woman recovering from her own rape trauma witnesses a flock of wild geese taking off from a lake. One goose has trouble and the others leave without him. But in a moment of grace, just as the lone goose finally gets airborne, the other geese circle back and absorb him into the flock. Like the novel, these stories are intricately detailed, touching lightly but realistically on faith and the conflicts of faith; they balance hope and fear and life and death. They usually proceed from the viewpoint of a young girl or young woman, one who, like Lily Harp, has a fragile but firm grasp of the darkness and light that comes with authentic living. Stacy Barton transcends the feminine experience by exploring it, showing us that we are all pregnant with the unknown hopes and fears of life and the capacity for both foolishness and grace. Lily Harp and the stories that follow deepen the genre of young adult fiction. I think I'm going to slip my copy into my classroom and let it accidentally get picked up by some of the Lily Harps that walk in the door with confusion written on their faces.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.