‘You’re right that I haven’t told you everything.’
In 2004 Bethany (Bet) embarks on a journey to find out who she is, by trying to find out more about her mother Sarah.
‘I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born.’
Bet sees the story of her mother as starting in 1974, the year before Bet was born. I was drawn into the story, of Bet trying to look back on her mother’s life to try to better understand herself and her own place in the world.
As a teenager in the 1970s, Sarah Francis is sent from her home in upstate New York to accompany Pastor Isaiah Woolcott on a mission to Idaho. Sarah leaves behind her mother Greta and brother Levi.
‘Three days before I am conceived, Sarah packs her suitcase.’
When Sarah becomes pregnant, her mother sends her from Poughkeepsie in New York State to family in Sydney. My heart breaks: Greta is more concerned with the Pastor’s reputation than with Sarah’s wellbeing. And when Sarah arrives in Sydney, she is not staying with her Aunt Nadine and Uncle John: she’s delivered to a home where unmarried mothers live (and work) until their babies are born. No one intends for Sarah to keep her baby: perhaps her Aunt Nadine might take the baby. Thus far, Sarah has been given no say in the arrangements made for her. But her passivity ends (temporarily at least) after her baby is born. With the help of Dora, who quickly becomes a friend, Sarah takes Bethany.
Imagine. A young woman, cut-off from all family trying to establish a life for herself. Sarah’s life so far has not prepared her for this. Sarah wants to return to her mother in New York State, but she has no money for the airfares. Bethany grows up as an only child with no links to family and no clear history. Sarah alternates between passive acceptance of her situation, relying heavily on her friend Dora, being manipulated by others, and being quite manipulative herself. Her friend Dora is one constant in both Sarah’s and Bet’s lives.
Bet is encouraged to work hard at school, and she does. Bet becomes a qualified vet, but she is restless and chooses to work as a locum rather than settle into one practice. Sarah’s unsettledness is also part of Bet’s life: both want security but neither know how to find and embrace it.
This novel took me on an uncomfortable journey, a reminder that parents had lives before children, a reminder that parents and children shape each other’s lives and a reminder that we can never really know another person completely. Bet has Sarah’s scrapbooks, but it is not always possible to understand the significance of the mementos that others keep.
A beautifully written novel that has me wondering about family and identity.