What’s it about?
Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, this novel features a thirteen year old girl living in poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi in the early sixties. Her mother, a single parent, is severely handicapped by the polio she contracted when she was nine months pregnant with her daughter, and she relies heavily on the assistance of an African-American caregiver named Peacie, with whom her daughter has a love-hate relationship. A lot of issues are looked at in this book, including the notion of what freedom really is, and whether or not it is fair for a child to be intimately involved in caring for a parent so mightily compromised.
What was the inspiration?
The book came about in a very unusual way. I received a letter from a fan named Marianne Burke asking me to write about her mother, who, like the character in the book, got polio when she was pregnant—in fact, she delivered Marianne in an iron lung. Normally, I would never have said yes, but Marianne sent along a photo of her mother and I couldn’t stop looking at it. In that mother’s face was such strength, intelligence, and joy. I wondered how someone who had endured so much, lost so much (indeed, the only thing her mother could move was her head), could look that way.
“She was a bit of a philosopher in that way, my mother. She was also a bit of a psychic, skilled in reading tarot cards and tea leaves, eerily accurate in random, off-the-cuff predictions. She knew lots of things other mothers didn’t: the laws of thermodynamics, how to write a song, the place for chili powder in chocolate, the importance of timing in telling a joke, how to paint Japanese anemones, personality quirks of George Washington. She taught me things about nature and people’s psyches that have served me well my entire life. She could also make me fear her.”