Houghton Mifflin, 225 pages, $22
Thirteen-year-old Caroline and her father live off-the-grid
in a gigantic nature preserve north of Portland, Ore. They
approach their hidden home on random stepping stones, so as
not to give away their presence by flattening the grass. They
shower in torrential downpours. Caroline grows a secret garden.
Her father has created a complex waste-disposal system. Caroline
can creep through the woods without making a sound. She learns
from a mildewed encyclopedia, a tattered paperback dictionary,
and the problems set and comments made by her father—mostly
drawn from Emerson or Thoreau. Every two weeks they walk out
of the forest and into the city where they get food, go to
the library, collect a check at the post office and cash at
an ATM. No one has detected them. Although Caroline’s father
is a very big man, he, too, can walk through the woods without
making a sound. Caroline has unbounded love for her father;
he calls Caroline “my heart.”
They are eventually discovered and separated from each other.
But tests show Caroline to be extraordinarily healthy and
intelligent, and unharmed sexually, so they are allowed to
live together again, now on a horse farm. But they disappear
from the ranch, and this time they are not found.
To this point, the novel reflects a true story that attracted
Peter Rock’s attention. A novelist with a penchant for characters
living at the very margin of society, Rock wanted to know
what happened next. When the local news failed to provide
an answer, he made up his own.
Rock captures exactly the characters’ personal adventure lives
in the park, and he’s equally brilliant at portraying the
deep mutual connection and sweetness between Caroline and
her father. One night they raid a junkyard at the edge of
the forest, making off with some cumbersome metal rods they
need. “Father keeps backtracking since it’s hard to carry
the long pieces of rebar through the trees in the dark. They
keep snagging on things, turning him sideways. ‘If you look
up at the sky,’ I say, ‘you can see the spaces between the
trees that way and see where to walk.’ ‘Thanks,’ he says.
‘Who do you think taught you that?’”
Caroline, her father’s child, speculates on grammar and punctuation:
“If a paragraph is a thought, a complete thought, then a sentence
is one piece of a thought. Like in addition where one number
plus another number equals a bigger number. If you wrote down
subtraction you would start with a thought and take enough
away that it was not longer complete. You might write backward,
or nothing at all, or less than nothing. You wouldn’t even
think or breathe. A comma, that is a place you breathe, or
think, which is how breathing and thinking are the same.”
The author ever so lightly brushes in Caroline’s slowly emerging
desire for a wider world. She secretly talks to a young boy
whose yard backs against the forest. Gradually, she is also
separating her own judgment from her father’s: “I am thinking
it’s fine if Father has secrets since I have secrets. We trust.
And I am also thinking that it is not okay to have a secret
where he leaves me behind even if I’m being alone.” Caroline
is aware of her father’s Vietnam-induced PTSD. “Maple seed
pods spin down,” Caroline observes, “helicoptering, but I
don’t use that word.”
With their escape from the ranch, the novel takes a harder
edge, involves more and more bad times, damage and tragedy.
The father’s competence rapidly dissolves in his growing paranoia.
“Father seems to be growing smaller these days even if that
cannot be true.” While Caroline ultimately makes some accommodation
to society, even at the end she still keeps to the edges,
carefully rationing her connections with other people.
Caroline narrates the novel. Rock creates for her a pure voice
of clear-eyed, if sometimes strange, observation. “Sometimes
a stone will roll up a hill. Or a stone will leap in the air
and rap against another stone or a tree like he is angry at
them. I have seen this happen. I have seen a fallen tree slowly
right itself and its dead branches sprout leaves.” Even when
Caroline leaves the woods and we can see through her eyes
to a more complicated, uglier scene, Caroline does not seem
stupid, only inexperienced. For her voice, Rock draws in part
on a famous diary, The Story of Opal by Opal Whiteley,
an uneducated child who lived in a Western lumbering camp
at the turn of the 20th century. Caroline also finds meaningful
words in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, especially about
what can be learned “from the eyes of animals, the flight
of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”
I have one profound disagreement with Rock’s fictionalization.
He has imposed on his central characters a grotesque background
story so out of keeping with the rest of his novel and so
at odds with the original facts that it very nearly destroys
not only the value of the novel but even its logic. However,
most of My Abandonment is so good that it is certainly
worth reading and even, for the most part, believing.