Monday, December 5, 2016

Miracle worker

Judith McPherson, the 10-year-old narrator of Grace McCleen's impressive first novel The Land of Decoration, defines a miracle in an early chapter as "what you see when you stop thinking." Perhaps because she thinks too much, Judith begins to see herself as a miracle worker. At first her power seems a blessing, but it becomes more and more a curse because miracles, like wishes granted by genies, don't always work the way they are intended.

Her mother died after her birth, and Judith has been raised by her father, a simple laborer who is a part of a fundamentalist congregation with strict ideas about sin and punishment. Judith knows Father loved her mother, but she isn't so sure that he really loves her.

The introverted girl spends most of her time alone in her room, in which she creates what she calls the Land of Decoration, a phrase based on an Old Testament passage. She has made, in effect, her own little world made out of rubbish, complete with mountains, buildings, rivers and pipe-cleaner people. One day she covers her world with cotton snow, and the next day an early-season blizzard strikes her town. A couple of days later she does it again. From then on, anything she does in her Land of Decoration happens in the real world, even if not quite as she might have imagined it.

Much is going on Judith's life beyond the Land of Decoration. Her father decides to continue working even though most of his fellow workers go on strike. She is bullied at school, and when one of the bullies follows her home, her house becomes a target of vandalism by him and his friends. This drives her father, already under extreme pressure at work, into a panic, especially when the police seem incapable of stopping the nightly assaults on his property. When he builds a fence to protect the house, authorities come after him for his illegal fence.

And then there are her almost daily conversations with God, who seems more like a kooky uncle.

The trouble with stories like this is how to end them in a satisfactory way without everything being a dream or the product of a character's imagination. The usual solution is to obfuscate the conclusion so that readers haven't a clue as to what is going on. Until McCleen arrives at the dilemma point, her novel proves rich and wonderful. After that, well, I for one was left unsatisfied.

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