You Are My Only by Beth Kephart tackles the tough topic of child abduction from two perspectives — that of the young victim, Sophie, and that of a mother, Emmy, whose child is stolen. In this powerful, yet quiet novel, Kephart explores how one unexpected event can devastate entire worlds.
While the topic is ripped from the headlines, there is no sensationalism here. Through carefully selected words in her poetic prose, Kephart builds tension and suspense, like the quiet vibration growing louder on the railroad tracks as the train approaches. It also provides a quiet space — like the air between the branches of a tall tree — for readers to contemplate what each voice is saying, what each voice is struggling to address, what pain is closed inside of them and just clawing to get out.
“My feet are two pale fish inside the tight ponds of my Keds. I leave the street for the train station. I leave the station and cross onto the tracks, slick-backed and shiny as snail glisten. The black gauze of the clouds flap at the moon, and from the tracks I can see into the backs of people’s houses, the private places where the lamps have not gone off. It’s like looking through snow globes, worlds behind glass.” (page 21)
Kephart’s prose is very lyrical and imagistic, and readers need to pay careful attention to her lines. For instance, the above passage perfectly demonstrates Emmy’s frame of mind after losing her child. She is lost, drowning, unmoored. She has become separate from those who have “normal” lives because that’s what she believed she had with her child and husband, no matter how imperfect the marriage.
Emmy and Sophie have strong voices, both with stories to tell, and having one without the other here would have left too much unsaid. Kephart is a masterful storyteller, building characters from the inside out, ensuring readers receive well-rounded men and women with strengths and weaknesses. But there is always a mystical element to her novels, something in the background that is left unexplained. She trusts the reader to uncover the truth of these relationships she’s building and the mysteries of what motivates them to keep moving forward even when things are at their most dark and uncertain.
“But my voice skids away, rides the slippery tracks. Far away, at the bend in the rails, the night is lamped. It is yellow and growing brighter, and now I understand: the train has big yellow eyes. Lovely ocher liquid eyes. They put the shimmer down on the tracks and splatter the dark.” (Page 22)
Beyond the main story, there are Helen and Cloris a devoted couple of aunts to a young boy, Joey, who is as normal as can be to Sophie. Like Joey who supports Sophie, quirky Arlen and fantastical Autumn support Emmy in ways that are unexpected. Although Emmy’s scenes, which are told from her point of view, limit readers’ knowledge of how she becomes institutionalized, it is not how she got there that is important to the story. What is important is what happens there and how it transforms her. Some of the hospital scenes are reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — minus the booze, floozies,and Nurse Ratched — in that she is there against her will and wants to escape, but for a while she merely is. The relationship Emmy builds with Autumn helps her repair her broken psyche, and in this way, Kephart’s hospital is the antithesis of what happens in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
You Are My Only is an emotional powerhouse drawing redemption out of the shattered pieces of lives rendered asunder by a single event. Through faith and love these characters can begin the heal, rebuild, and flourish. What more could readers ask for? Stunning, precious, and captivating from beginning to end.
About the Author:
Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.
Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog. Also check out this chat.
My other Beth Kephart reviews:
Please come back this afternoon for my interview with Beth Kephart about You Are My Only and for a giveaway.