Child of My Heart, Alice McDermott, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2002, 242 pp
I have been aware of Alice McDermott for several years but this is the first of her novels I've read. It is her fifth novel out of seven and I was entranced by it.
Theresa is an only child with older parents, who have moved from Queens to the smallest house in an upscale vacation town on the eastern end of Long Island. The parents decided to raise their daughter among the rich in the hopes that she will make a good marriage and improve her lot in the world. That, to me, is such an Irish feudal concept, somehow tragically innocent in modern times.
The entire story in Child of My Heart is tragically innocent. Theresa is a beautiful, whimsical, well-read fifteen year old, the most sought after babysitter in the town. She also cares for people's cats and dogs, while keeping her eye on the hapless children next door. Both parents work long hours so Theresa has a cultivated self sufficiency. Her ability and propensity to care for creatures younger and smaller than herself is almost scary.
Enter eight year old cousin Daisy, come to spend the summer, second to last child in a blue-collar family of eight children, strangely fragile and pale with mysterious bruises on her body. Along with four dogs, three cats, the five neighborhood dead end kids and Flora, toddler of a local artist, Theresa takes Daisy under her wing intending to give her a special, magical summer.
I fell into complete sympathy with Theresa. With several glaring differences, I was like her when I was a pre-teen. I had two younger sisters, I was the oldest kid in my neighborhood, and I felt like the fairy godmother of all these kids. I fancied that I had a secret insight into their souls because I was more close to them than their mothers.
As Theresa makes her daily rounds of pet care and baby sitting, with Daisy in tow, we see the various more or less dysfunctional rich summer people through Theresa's penetrating mind. Despite her ability to make children and animals happy, Theresa is self-absorbed and ignorant as only a young teen can be.
I felt as protective of Theresa as she felt for Daisy. Helplessly impotent as the reader, I watched her move inexorably into emotional and physical danger, wanting to shout, "No! Don't go there!" But of course she does and tragedy strikes. Then, as is also so true of those tender years, she emerges fairly unscathed, protected by the very self-absorption that drives adults crazy.
Child of My Heart was to me a thing of wonder written with the verve and grace of an Irish ballad by a woman who did not forget what it was like to be fifteen in the relatively safer world of about thirty years ago.
(Child of My Heart is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)