A review of Father Lands by Emily Ballou

Throughout the book, the intensity of the emotions are coupled with the tight ‘coming of age’ plot and the very rich details which strongly evoke Milwaukee Wisconsin in the 1970s. Ballou is a poet and her writing is strongly poetic, allowing the reader to get under the skin of her characters, emphasising, sympathising and feeling the action from within.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Father Lands
by Emily Ballou
Picador (Pan Macmillan)
November 2002
ISBN 0-330-36384-0
RRP $A30.00

Cherry Laurel is 8 years old when her father leaves the family, the same year she begins the “Historical Experiment” – a plan for integration which has her bussed to the previously all black ML King Elementary school. The story follows Cherry’s life during this year, and take her perspective primarily. Cherry’s world is a sensual, internal one, and her unexpressed emotions – the pain of her losses, her anger and the changes she goes through during this pivotal year – are exquisite. Ballou balances Cherry’s story with three other narrative voices – Belle, Cherry’s mother, Macy, Cherry’s friend Hugo’s mother and one other – a kind of ghost – the archetypical missing father as well as an actual missing [grand] father which slips in between the other narratives.

Throughout the book, the intensity of the emotions are coupled with the tight ‘coming of age’ plot and the very rich details which strongly evoke Milwaukee Wisconsin in the 1970s. Ballou is a poet and her writing is strongly poetic, allowing the reader to get under the skin of her characters, emphasising, sympathising and feeling the action from within. The separate stories of Macy and Hugo, Cherry and her sisters and the phantom father’s insets between the chapters bisect cleverly. While waiting in the hospital with a neighbour who had hurt her head, Cherry watches the hurt people come in, and sees the desperate father of Hugo’s friend and neighbour, little Tode who was fatally burnt:

Cherry had never realised before how every day somebody was dying. Every day somebody was having the worst day of their life watching somebody else that they loved dying. Waiting, pacing. Wailing the coyote wail, the grief that could never quite get out.(126)

The loss of young Tode is paralleled by the loss of Hugo’s brother George, and these lost children are contrasted with their lost fathers. There are other connections. Macy works on a desk which was built by Cherry’s grandfather, modelled on Thomas Jefferson’s desk, which Macy discovers on a trip to Monticello. The particular experiences of Cherry are parallelled with the broader experiences of history – the many missing fathers, including the countries’ founding fathers whose lofty goals for the country are questioned by Hugo, who wonders whether “All men are created equal” was meant to include blacks and women. There is also the mixing up of black and white, and Cherry’s feelings of insecurity as she wonders whether she is damned forever for being the wrong colour.

The most intense moments of the book are the climaxes of change, which produce poetic responses in the heroines. For Cherry, this is when her father leaves:

Goodbye, Cherry thought, clutching her slippery heart between her fingers. It slipped and slid out of her hands, bounced down the basement stairs, squish squish squish like a wet rubber ball. It left marks of blood on the floor. Cherry chased after it. Wait! Don’t go yet! But the heart was faster than she was.” (134)

Or when Macy watches Hugo about to leave with his father:

Macy felt her world shift sideways, felt her own body tumble down those stairs instead, saw her own shattered bones at the bottom. She was about to lose all she had left to love. Knew Hugo couldn’t help but adore his father, despite everything. It was that way with fathers. The very fact of them being the one that did the abandoning left them towering like Lincoln on a gigantic stone throne, lit up for all nights and eternity, while some maid swept the stones around his feet and chased away the birds liable to shit all over his precious lap. (332-3)

Although Father Lands is universal enough in its theme and descriptive enough in its setting to appeal to anyone, it is almost a shame that it has come out in Australia. The book is so powerful and specific in its depiction of America in the 70s, that it would likely do very well in the American market. The underlying corruption of “The American Way” is one which evokes the film “American Beauty.” There is the phoney perfection “mother of the year” of Belle’s friend Mary-Beth, and Cherry’s “The American Dream is to have straight teeth.” This is also conveyed by the jungle-gyms which are forced upon families who can’t afford them and then re-possessed, or Belle’s disillusionment:

An American Girl could do anything. She could slump to school because she was too tall and hide behind her breasts and stop speaking in class even when she knew all the answers. She could have her colours done at the Clinique counter and find out that she was an Autumn and should never wear pink in any shade. She could perm her hair until it fried. She could have it straightened until it died…She could read every book in the library and still get raped there after school…They could leave themselves too, if they didn’t satisfy , and still come back from the dead with scars in the right places. Could wear the wounds proudly, or hide them beneath long sleeves in summer. The scars were there whether anybody could see them or not. Every girl had them (the burns, the slashes, the rotting teeth, the skeletal body). It was the American Way.(145-146)

There is also the impact of divorce. Although the US in the 70s doesn’t hold a monopoly on divorce, there was something pervasive during this period, where nearly everyone in Cherry’s class comes from a broken family of one sort or another (250). The long term destructive breakdown of the nuclear family – and the largely unexplored impact of this on the children of these families is one of Ballou’s key themes. She does a beautiful job of evoking Cherry’s dislocation and sense of betrayal, Belle’s loneliness, Hugo’s hero worship, and the way in which the men walk out and the women remain.

Father Lands is a sad story – the phantoms that people this story never come back. The rifts are never mended, and the pain never goes away. Belle marries a man she doesn’t love, and Cherry has to grow up quickly. This isn’t a dour novel though. It is full of fun, including things like Hugo’s desperate attempts to keep himself found by leaving notes everywhere, Cherry’s language of trees, and things like flossing in class:

Mrs Joy stood at the front of the class with Cherry by her side and together everybody flossed, flinging bits of appple and Wonder-BreadTwinkiesChocolateCupcakes into the air. It was better than Pledge Allegiance to the Flag (59)

There is also joy. Both Cherry and perhaps even more powerfully, Macy, find their voices. Macy is also victorious over the force of history – the oppression of both her sex and race, and over her husband Ernie. In the end, even though the men have gone, there is still Hugo’s promise, and there is always feminine power – love, motherhood, forgiveness and the solace of the beauty of words. In the end, it is a woman’s voice we hear. Father Lands is a superb debut. Poet , screenwriter and novelist Emily Ballou is a talent to watch.

For more information visit: Father Lands