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Living in Secret

By Margaret Black

My Abandonment

By Peter Rock

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.

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