In "My Abandonment," Portland author Peter Rock takes a real-life story of a homeless father and daughter and turns it into a hypnotic novel of survival and secrets. Rock reads tonight at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Friends, jewelry, trips to the cinema. Caroline, though 13, has none of these.
She does have Father and a hidden garden. She owns a set of encyclopedias (up to L), a blue ribbon and Randy, a toy horse inside which she keeps “a scrap of paper rolled up tight where I have written a secret secret in case I ever forget it.”
Caroline and Father have lots of secrets in Peter Rock’s hypnotic and disturbing novel, “My Abandonment” (Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, 240 pp., $22). The most obvious one is their concealed home.
The place is Portland, Ore. The year is 1999, a time of plenty for many, though not them. The two live in a dug-out cave roofed with branches, wire, metal and tarps camouflaged under a layer of earth deep inside Forest Park, a nature preserve with some 5,000 wooded acres. They have a lookout post high in a tree and a stream for water and washing. Once a week, they go into town for supplies.
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This narrative, however odd, is grounded in reality. In 2004, police found a Vietnam War veteran and his 12-year-old daughter living in a shelter in Forest Park. The man had no job and only a $400-a-month disability check for money, The Associated Press reported.
They had been there for four years, with the father educating his daughter with old encyclopedias. A pediatrician examined the girl and found no evidence of physical or sexual abuse. A police sergeant got the man a job on a horse farm.
Rock, who teaches writing at Portland’s Reed College, takes this case as a starting point for his new novel, told in the voice of a girl whose life will be oddly blessed and blighted by a latter-day Henry David Thoreau.
“We’re the lucky ones,” Father tells her one night.
“We are,” she replies, obedient yet beginning to ask questions about Father’s judgment, her missing mother and what really happened those years ago when she wrote a name on a piece of paper and slipped it into Randy.
As the story opens, Caroline is growing in confidence and has learned to live off the land (a skill worth acquiring if our economic crisis gets much worse). “I am the one who knows about food in the forest park, the best places for blackberries,” she says in her slightly stilted (and convincing) idiom, “and when the morels are up I know where to find them and the mushroom harvests are maybe when we eat best. There are ferns you can also eat.”
Their idyll will soon end. Before the story closes, Caroline and Father will be resettled to a farm, squat in a hotel facing demolition and get lost in a rural snowstorm.
The narrative unfolds as a meditative interior monologue, with some of the plot developing beyond Caroline’s immature comprehension, leaving tantalizing gaps for the reader to fill. Gaps that may be filled with crime and sex.
Yet bit by bit — steady as water dripping on limestone — reality carves a groove in Caroline’s consciousness, turning her childhood trust into a sense of betrayal.
“This is not the way we used to be,” she pleads with Father. “This is not a way we were ever supposed to be.”
Yet she will never escape Father, who has shaped her understanding with ideas like this one, drawn from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment.”
If this is a Bildungsroman, it’s one for grown-ups. Caroline comes of age in circumstances so harsh yet so tender that her redemption will be tempered by loss and uncommon learning.