John Thorndike’s powerful first novel, Anna Delaney’s Child, is one of my favorite novels of the ‘80s. It got very good reviews--”affecting...deft...lyrically powerful prose,” said the New York Times in 1986--and then slipped under the radar. A group of us on AOL in the '90s rediscovered it and wondered why it wasn’t in print. It’s the question that haunts those of us who find a small masterpiece and can't share it easily.
This lyrical novel charts the mourning and gradual healing of a group of believable, strong characters in Fell River, Ohio, who have suffered a range of losses. Anna Delaney, a farmer, has lost her eight-year-old son, Kevin, in a car accident; her father's beloved wife, Anna’s mother, has died of cancer; Susan, now a paraplegic after a recent climbing accident, longs for the sports that kept her centered; and Anna’s ex-husband, Paul, has moved to Fell River with his unresolved drug problems.
All the characters are deftly drawn, but Anna is at the center. A year after the accident, every minute she isn’t working, Anna still thinks all the time about Kevin: his love of cowboys; the way he ate nothing but Wheaties for a year (and survived because he was secretly eating fruit at a friend’s house); his absorbed reading of cereal boxes and advertisements; her ex-husband's defense of Kevin after the stern letter from the daycare center about the rambunctious child’s refusal to take naps.
Looking at a snapshot of Kevin in a borrowed cowboy outfit, she grieves that she denied him the suit so long because she hated guns.
It got worse when Todd down the street was given a cowboy suit for his birthday. Kevin gave no peace for weeks. He called himself Silverman and Tough Stuff. He wanted a suit and two guns like Todd’s. He needed them. One Saturday he left for Todd’s at eight in the morning and didn’t return until noon. He rode full tilt into the garage, braked with a streak of rubber across the concrete and pushed his bike against the back wall. With a snapshot in his hand he burst into the kitchen shouting, “See, Mom, I’m a cowboy!” He had gotten Todd to lend him the suit and Todd’s dad to take a Polaroid picture of him with full scowl and guns up.
She never had a sadder moment with him, realizing how she had denied him a harmless fantasy for years. But he paid her no more attention now than when she gave him sermons on violence. He had finally gotten into a cowboy suit and had the photo to prove it; that was all that counted. He danced around the kitchen and shot into the air with his fingers, saying, “I’m Jesse James! I’m Pretty Boy Floyd!” Anna could hardly keep from crying. Guns were playthings to Kevin, there was nothing in him that was violent or tough....
Thorndike is a thoughtful, sensitive, utterly convincing writer, and the characters feel like family. The book is “unputdownable.”
Back to it!