MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

Fri., May 21, 2004
Father, girl reside in Portland park
Portland, Oregon


“Author, Peter Rock, a professor of creative writing at Portland’s Reed College had earned a literary reputation for his skill in bringing to the forefront marginal characters who might easily go unnoticed. As Rock, and most of Portland, followed with fascination the story of the mysterious father and daughter, the writer’s mind filled with questions, characters, and ideas. Eventually he put them all together to create his 2009 award-winning novel, My Abandonment. [In 2018, My Abandonment, was adapted for film and released as Leave No Trace.]

Peter Rock’s work, My Abandonment, is pure fiction loosely based on known facts about Frank and Ruth up to their disappearance. The time after their disappearance, a product of the author’s wild imagination. Frank and Ruth have become Father and Caroline.

We have to be so careful these days.
Why? No one knows where we are, says Caroline
If you think that way, that’s when you get caught. Overconfident.
No one’s ever caught us. No one could.That doesn’t mean anything. You know better than to look to the past, Caroline.

Father is strict. He has to be strict. That doesn’t mean he knows everything I do or think. 

It’s been four years since Father arrived at her foster home in Idaho to reunite with Caroline. We learn about their life together with Caroline narrating through a teenager’s lens as it appears in her daily journal. From this vantage, we never see into Father’s past or into his mind and are left to speculate about his actions and decisions.

As we meet Father, a 52-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Caroline, they are scouring a salvage yard in the dead of night to steal rebar to strengthen their primitive shelter. If we took a bird’s eye view of their home, we would find  signs of a normal life adjusted for the hardship of living in the wild; his insistence on a ship-shape life probably reflective of his military training. In an effort to remain anonymous and undetected, both have become masters of stealth and skilled at camouflage, denizens of Forest Park.

Father, college educated, insists on daily homeschooling for Caroline; guided by a set of thrift store encyclopedias and a Bible. Father has a deep knowledge of classical authors and uses relative quotes from them as punctuation points in his conversations with her.

The pair do expose themselves to the world, traveling to town when necessary to resupply, dressed to blend in with the town folks. Father, a victim of post-war PTSD, receives a monthly disability check delivered to a post office box in town. The small amount of money provides enough income for food and sparse necessities.

But it is not long before things feel weird. Caroline tells us that Father’s paranoid insistence on caution overshadows their lives 24/7.  Even in sleep, danger seems to haunt him with nightmares about hovering helicopters. Caroline would know, they sleep together in one sleeping bag. Randy, Caroline’s comfort toy, a plastic horse given to her by Father, goes everywhere with her; never leaves her side. Plastic Randy, whose stomach holds a slip of paper with her secret secret – something she must guard and never lose, something Father must never find.

There are other homeless folks in the forest, all with baggage from the past. Father barters with one group of slimy characters; until one of them begins to take too much interest in Caroline.

One day, by dumb luck, a stranger stumbles upon their front door while Father is away from camp and surprising Caroline who’s resting in her hideout in a treetop. Her little yip and her sweaty shirt drying on a branch gives them away. She keeps the intrusion secret from Father. But the stranger leads the police to them and the gig is up.

Helpful authorities find them a home with an elderly farmer. Caroline loves the farm, their little “real” home, and the promise of attending a real school. Maybe it was the open sky and constant contact with the outside world or perhaps loss of control over his own life but Father begins to dissemble, marking the beginning of what will become many faulty decisions. Without warning, he tells Caroline to pack a bag; they are leaving. This move, absent all their supplies confiscated by the police, threatens their survival.

Father never recovers from the removal from Forest Park leading the pair through one dangerous situation after another. Throughout their trek to find a new home, Father remains devoted to Caroline, exercising his control over her life by keeping his thoughts and plans to himself. She has no other option but to follow. As Father stumbles, Caroline becomes stronger and more independent thinking. One final flawed decision by Father ends their lives together leaving Caroline to restart her life in whatever fashion she desires. And we learn Caroline’s secret secret.

Book Themes and Thoughts

Anonymity and Use of Nicknames: The importance of discretion and use of false names a central theme. Do names identity us or dictate who we are?

Violence: Several scenes are gruesome and could be regarded as Triggers for adolescent readers.

Social Norms: This slender novel gives ample reason to question what is “normal”. Do “normals” have the right to interfere with alternative living options? At what point should someone interfere?

Relationships: There is a creepy edge to Father’s relationship with Caroline. His constant use of endearments, overprotective need to control her day, and questionable privacy issues lends itself to child abuse and criminal behavior.

The ending was somewhat disappointing but I found the book overall very interesting. Using a teenager narrator keeps things simple and points out that we never really know anyone’s whole story. I have found myself reflecting about their story days after I finished the book.

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