Date Published: March 1, 2005
Publisher: Mira Books
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Book Summary: In many ways, Carrie Parker is like any other 8 year old girl; playing make believe, dreading school, dreaming of faraway places. But even her naively hopeful mind can't shut out the terrible realities of home or help her to protect her younger sister, Emma.
As the big sister, Carrie is determined to do anything to keep Emma safe from a life of neglect and abuse at the hands of their drunken stepfather, Richard - abuse their mother can't seem to see, let alone stop.
After the sisters' plans to run away from their impoverished North Carolina home unravel, Carrie's world soon takes a shocking turn, with devastating results. In one shattering moment in the Parker sisters' lives, a startling act of violence ultimately reveals a truth that leaves everyone reeling.
My Thoughts: In the small southern town of Toast, where 8-year old narrator Carrie Parker lives, poverty is as much a way of life as is staying out of each other’s business. Even if a child’s being hurt. Teachers, store clerks and other townsfolk offer Carrie a kind word, candy or a pat on the head, but nothing more despite having a good idea about what’s going on behind closed doors at the Parker house.
Elizabeth Flock has filled Me & Emma with a cast of dysfunctional, flawed characters, even the best of whom is difficult to like because, even though many of the townsfolk are kind to Carrie, no one does what it takes to “rescue” her. Even the surroundings are colorless. As such, Carrie’s days are only about survival. When not in school, Carrie spends most of her time trying to avoid Richard, her mean and angry step-father. Carrie daydreams frequently and relies on memories of her murdered father to cope when she’s lonely, hurt or scared, which is most of the time. Using Carrie to narrate the story, the author offers us a first hand look at what goes through the mind of an abused and neglected child.
A fascinating and perplexing side to Carrie is her relationship with her mother, for example. Though I found it difficult to like a mother who rarely shows love or concern for her small daughters, doing little to protect them, Carrie loves her. She doesn’t seem bothered by Momma’s distance and irritability. Rather, she excuses most of her mother’s behavior as a result of losing her husband. Carrie even tells us Momma doesn’t like Emma (Carrie’s younger sister) very much but explains it away because Emma looks so much like their deceased daddy. Carrie has many happy memories of the loving family she had when her father was alive. She holds on to who her mother used to be, rather than seeing her as she is. Is this a defense mechanism, Carrie hoping she’ll be like that again one day? Again, Flock shows how complicated a little girl’s world can be when raised amid such chaos. Adding to Carrie‘s confusion and fear is the fact that Momma herself is frequently abused by Richard.
The fact that Momma gets angry at anyone trying to act on her behalf, to “interfere” as she sees it, helps answer one of the more obvious questions the first half of the book raises: how come no one saves Carrie? Well, if her own mother’s attitude is “mind your own business, even if it means I’m going to be beaten to a pulp”, how can we expect anyone to take action on Carrie’s behalf? This is the author taking the reader to another place and seemingly another time. It’s as if Toast, North Carolina is a town left in the past, never progressing into the 1990s. So even though Carrie doesn’t understand what her Momma sees in Richard, she never questions it. She just accepts that he’s there and that for now, all she need concern herself with is avoiding him. There is no blame directed at her mother. But the reader, being a product of a modern society, will still occasionally feel sympathy for Momma - usually when she is being bashed around by Richard. At times this is going to leave the reader frustrated, wanting to reach out and shake Carrie into reality. Here the author has made an amazing parallel, connecting two societies separated by place and attitude because we find that, for different reasons, we’re just like the people of the town: we want to help, but can’t.
Carrie, at least, isn’t alone most of the time. Emma, her quiet and tough younger sister, scared of nothing is the sweet, well-mannered Carrie’s constant companion. Together they forage for food when Richard eats it all or their Momma is too drunk to make anything. The rest of the time they find fun and safe places to hide away from Richard and his wrath.
Halfway through the book, the Parker family moves to a more remote area in North Carolina. The tension that was slowly building as the story progressed increases as Richard’s temper flares constantly now and momma becomes more irritable and distant. Carrie and Emma spend more time away from home. They befriend a gruff, elderly neighbor, Mr. Wilson. He’s the first adult to openly address Carrie’s home situation and offer she and Emma hope for the future. In the hands of a less-skilled author, this could come off as a forced way of taking Carrie out of an otherwise dead-end (perhaps literally) existence. But there is attention to detail and explanations that, taken in the context of where and when the story takes place, makes sense, and isn’t made to seem “inevitable”.
Flock shows exceptional skill in psychology of people, but especially children. Through Carrie the author encompasses the extent and importance of day dreaming and why it might even be necessary to such an extent for Carrie, in particular. Past events and her current life impact Carrie in such a way that she has no choice but to daydream in order to cope and survive. It’s important for me to let you know that I can’t explain the why’s of all of this without “spoiling” the end of the story. You don‘t want me to do that. Trust me! What I can say is events at the end of the story are a direct result of the many layer’s of Carrie’s personality. The crux of this book is about the psychology of Carrie’s struggle to cope and survive her life and show Flock’s mastery of the human condition when facing a horrible situation. One with no signs of things changing for the better.
This is a fascinating and extremely well-written book, one worth reading. But it’s not a happy one. It might be especially difficult for the parents of small children to read. If you’re okay with the subject matter, I highly recommend Me & Emma.
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