Jennifer Lauck conveys the perceptions, thoughts and emotions of a frightened child with utter conviction and vivid immediacy in her remarkable memoir of the six years during which both of her parents died. Lauck opens in 1969, when she is five and her 31-year-old mother is entering the final phase of a decade of severe health problems. Momma is beautiful and loving; we feel the tender intimacy between mother and daughter, even as we see that Jennifer has assumed a lot of adult responsibilities that make her fearful and obsessed with rules. Eight-year-old brother Bryan responds to Momma's illnesses with anger, and is often cruel to his sister. High-powered, workaholic Daddy does his best, but is not around a lot. (The adult author subtly depicts the children's half-conscious understanding that Daddy is seeing other women.) As Momma's health worsens and the family moves to Southern California to be near a better hospital, Lauck captures in painful detail the atmosphere of physical decay that surrounds a mortally ill woman until Momma dies on Bryan's 10th birthday. In short, Daddy moves them all in with Deb, who obviously has been his girlfriend for a while, and events spiral down from there.
Daddy dies of a heart attack before Jennifer turns 10; Deb keeps the stepchildren (whom she dislikes) so that she can get their social security allotment; Jennifer is sent out to work at a residence that is run by Deb's creepy Freedom Community Church. She is 11 by the time that her aunt and uncle rescue her--a moment that is nearly as exultant for readers as it is for the girl whose trials they have shared for nearly 400 pages. Her harrowing story might sound unremittingly grim in the retelling, but Lauck's lack of self-pity and the delicacy of her prose transform it into an odyssey of endurance and transcendence. --Wendy Smith [via]