Karen White's A Long Time Gone is a book full of brooding atmosphere and ambiance, set in the South. The book spotlights the generations of women who felt compelled to leave their home and leave their children behind, returning only to leave again, setting up a sense of disquiet and disruption in their daughter’s lives. Learning from their mothers' examples, the daughters repeat the pattern of leaving and returning, leaving and returning.
The ambience and disquieting atmosphere are very like the gothics of old:
We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground, along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the delta. A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.
Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back.
And then there is the skeleton, which creates more of the brooding, ominous feeling:
He stepped back, allowing my gaze to register the gaping hole in the ground that the intricate root system of the giant cypress had once inhabited. The grass around the edges was blackened, wood and bark sprinkled like confetti around the wounded earth. And there, nestled inside the dark hole like a baby in its crib were the stark white bones of a human skeleton.
And while the moody impression initially got my attention, the fractured relationships between mother and daughter kept me turning the page. As children we are programmed to love our mothers, but their actions can make it challenging. Vivian has a love-hate relationship with her mother Carol Lynne because Carol Lynne was always flitting in and out of Vivian’s life. But through flashbacks we discover Carol Lynne’s issues with her own mother, Elizabeth—known as Bootsie. And we are privy to Bootsie’s mother’s life.
Vivian abhorred her mother for leaving her, because only a mother who didn’t love her child enough would be able to leave—or so she thought. But when Vivian turns eighteen she also turns her back on the people who she loved and who loved her: her best friend Tripp, her brother, Tommy, and her grandmother, Bootsie.
Tripp took his time depositing the tray on my lap and making sure my glass of water was within easy reach on my nightstand…
“He’s not ready to talk to you. You left him behind, too, remember…”
“Where’s Bootsie?” I asked, ready to hear the answer now.
“I’m sorry Vivi. She died last spring. Pneumonia. It was real quick. She died in her sleep.”
. . . I remembered the unread letters I’d thrown away before I’d moved again, leaving no forwarding address; my unlisted phone numbers; and my constant vigilance just in case somebody from home came to find me. Shame and regret slid down my arms and I folded my hands as if I could put those useless emotions away permanently.
“Tommy and I wrote to let you know…”
“And my mother…?“
“Tommy should tell you…”
I shook my head. “If he’s angry with me, it could take months, and I doubt I’ll be here that long.” Holding grudges weren’t reserved for only the females in our family.
His expression shifted. “She has dementia. We suspect she could be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s but she refuses to see a doctor…”
And Vivian finds too that even before her divorce, her stepdaughter Chloe felt abandoned by her:
“Home means so many different things. It’s more than the sounds and the smells, even though they’re important. . . It’s where your people are.”
Her voice sounded very small. “But what if you don’t have any people?”
I thought of her mother in Australia, and her father on his honeymoon with his third wife and how he hadn’t bothered to call his only child. “Then you find your own.”
She sat up and I could feel her agitation, something the pills had always made sure I was immune to. “Yeah, well, the only ‘people’ I found was somebody who could only stand to be with me if she was popping pills.”
Is it something that the women in her family are destined to do?
Because it was something I’d been born with, a poison in the blood I’d inherited from my mother and she from hers and way on back before anybody alive could still remember. Because I’d grown up to believe that my mother’s constant departures meant that anywhere else was better than here.
When Chloe contacts her out of the blue, needing a place to stay, Vivian knows that she has to make changes in her life—she has to step up and try to be a mother again, to this girl that has no one else.
Of course she is not surprised to discover how difficult that is—she only has to look at her own relationship with her mother. How tough it is to let go of the hurts and slights. But an uneasy peace settles over the group as they first try to discover the mystery surrounding the remains, and then bring life back to Bootsie’s garden. Vivian is amazed at the change in her step-daughter as she bonds with the childlike Carol Lynne:
“Don’t pack it too tightly,” I said. “The little shoots are very delicate and not strong enough to break through hard ground, so don’t smother them. And then they have to figure out how to stick their heads out into the sunshine on their own. All you can do is watch and hope for the best, because you’ve done everything you know how to do.”
“Like we’re the mothers and these are our little babies,” Carol Lynne said, her voice as clear as a child’s.
Chloe laughed, a sound I hadn’t heard a lot of in the last few years.
“You’re right!” she said. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other like a freaking Hallmark Channel movie.
And while Vivian welcomes the thaw in her relationship with her former step-daughter and is resigned to never finding out why her mother left, she is afraid to get closer to Tripp, even though he has always been there:
”I’m not going anywhere." His words almost made me cry. It was what he’d said when I called him in the middle of the night every time my heart was broken or my feelings hurt, or another birthday had passed without even a card from my mother. He’d wait through long silences until I was ready to speak again, reassuring me each time I asked if he was still on the line.
Even though she needs his help, she doesn’t want to lead him on:
Don’t, Tripp. Please. I am not that girl you once thought you were in love with. She’s so long gone I wouldn’t even know how to find her. And to tell you the truth, she wasn’t that great to begin with. So get over it okay? We’re not in high school.
From the 1920’s to the 1960’s to the present, you will be enthralled with the lives and legacy of Walker women. And full of hope that one woman will finally get it right!
Liegh Davis, blogger