Review of My Radio Radio, by Jessie van Eerden (West Virginia University Press, 2016), reviewed by Kathryn Schuyler
Set amid the seemingly stagnant waters of an aging Christian commune, Jessie van Eerden's novel My Radio Radio surges through all the major rapids of the human experience in one brave and breathless literary expedition. The protagonist, "quirky and thoughtful Naomi Ruth," navigates the deeply disturbing questions of death, birth, sex, innocence, and God's hand in it all before she's even had time to turn fourteen.
My Radio Radio follows Omi Ruth through her hectic pubescent years in the Dunlap Fellowship of All Things in Common, which, up until the start of the novel, has been all collage-making and rainbows. But one morning, the novel begins: "I woke up too fast, that's all. I swung my feet to the floor and upset some bowl inside me, and whatever happened inside must have happened outside me, too."
In her waking up too fast, the bowl Omi believes she upsets is her blood, it's the morning of her first period. But this morning marks the beginning of a domino effect, as she's launched headlong into adulthood, slammed with one growing pain after another. While the novel is cringe-worthy at times for all that Omi endures, van Eerden's fresh and poetic narration carries the reader through. Her revelatory observations are grounded in physical imagery, drawing us into Omi's world, beckoning us to encounter even the stalest facets as Omi does for the first time: "I can't explain my face wet with tears. I wipe my nose then wipe my hand on my green dress. I grow lost in the sound of her humming voice, and in the words she has preached out like a fountain."
Van Eeerden dots Omi's strange, hyper-compressed coming-of-age experience with equally strange and amusing characters. Of course no teenage girl's tale would be complete without a love interest, but Omi gets two. In her interactions with Spencer and Vaughn, Omi dips her toes into opposite worlds: stifled Amish conservatism and gritty, secular rebellion. Within the commune, Omi is surrounded by equally opposite characters, from the blubbering would-be-poet Jude to a comatose man named North. Yet even amidst the stolid piety of her home, the closest experience Omi gets to God is in the form of a pregnant sixteen-year-old.
Tracie Casteel can best be described as a cross between the Virgin Mary and a sassy Southerner; one way or another, she ushers Omi into a womanhood marked by grace. Tracie eases Omi into her loss of innocence, "her loss of naiveté” and yet, at every juncture, refills that absence with love. It is through Tracie that van Eerden speaks to our own young and innocent and heartbroken selves, we who, like Omi, find ourselves in bodies and worlds that age too quickly, bereft of that which we assumed was permanent.
If you thought you had a grasp on the classic coming-of-age novel, My Radio Radio slaps those preconceptions out of your hands. By means of Omi's distinctive voice, van Eerden takes us barreling through all the joys and pains (mostly pains) of youth, stripping us of our callouses and demanding that we feel again the raw ache of turning thirteen: "Then I know Tracie could somehow see my vision too, just now, and I know that we are here to mourn big, to mourn in the wide sunrise-arc Nancy Calhoun makes like a fool with her arms, to mourn the sunrise itself." Even if we're left reeling from the fearless exploration of death and hurt and sexuality (lots of sexuality), we can feel the soft tug of redemption, like Tracie Casteel brushing her fingers through our hair. And what comes of it is a novel that is just as gut-wrenching as it is heart-warming, and just as endearing as it is uncomfortable.
Kathryn Schuyler is a web designer and weekend poet living in San Diego, CA. She is a graduate of Westmont College's English department and the editor-in-chief of Mazing Magazine, available online.
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