Posted in Reading

A Tale of Two Books

I read all the time, but I don’t always read what everyone else is reading. My book choices bounce from classic horror to edgy YA to quiet middle grade titles to random novels with a cool cover that I saw at Half-Priced Books. I rarely read the MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the moment, those titles that are on everyone’s Goodreads page and every best seller list. If I do read them, it’s often much later, after all the hubbub has died down and I think, “Ok, let’s see what all the fuss was about.” (Often the fuss was right on. Sometimes I disagree with the fuss.)

However, last month, I read two VERY POPULAR BOOKS at the same time—one in print and one on audio—and I was shocked at how similar they were.

The books were Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Educated by Tara Westover.

On the surface, these books are quite different. Where the Crawdads Sing is a fiction novel that is part mystery, set in the 1950s and 60s. The story is about a young woman named Kya, known to locals as “the Marsh Girl,” who grows up alone after her family leaves her, creating a life for herself in an isolated hut on the North Carolina coast. Educated, on the other hand, is a memoir about the author’s life growing up in the 1980s and 90s with her radical survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. Her parents don’t believe in modern medicine and don’t even have birth certificates for their children, who, in the eyes of the government, don’t exist. Despite their obvious differences, the connections between these books were fascinating.

The biggest similarity was that both characters (I’m going to call Tara a character here even though she is a real person) were the youngest child in a large family and neither one went to school. Kya, lured by the promise of a hot lunch, went to school for one day when she was around seven years old, but when the other kids made fun of her for misspelling “dog,” she never went back. Due to her father’s intolerance of public school, Tara never set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen. However, both women were bright, quick learners and became educated through other means, each becoming an expert in their areas.

There is so much more, though, that links these two books. The richness of the setting is one. Both the marshes of the Carolina coast and the rural Idaho mountains were described so vividly, I could see them. When Kya was motoring through the lagoon in her old boat and Tara was working in the junkyard beside her father, I felt like I was there with them. Because of the Westovers’ primitive way of living, even the time periods of the books didn’t seem so far removed. Each time I heard a year mentioned in Educated, I was jolted for a moment at the reminder of how recently these things occurred.

In addition, both characters experience abuse by family members and ostracization from society. Both live in an isolated world of their own or their family’s own making. Both use home remedies to treat injuries, and both retain strong bonds to their family and place of birth despite the negative memories associated with them.

However, each subject matter is written about so differently by the authors. Westover’s concise, pragmatic prose left me breathless with its merciless betrayal of her family’s control over her and the accidents that resulted from her father’s recklessness and mental illness, while Owens’s depiction of Kya’s hardships was softer, more beautiful, blurred at the edges in ways that let the reader understand her heartache and hurt without falling into it.

In the end, I really liked both books and would give each 4.5 stars. In Where the Crawdads Sing, the .5 reduction is due to a couple of writing nitpicks. Although the language was beautiful, I got tired of the sentence fragments. And I loved the ending, but I thought more time needed to pass before the last reveal. I listened to the audio version of Educated, so I couldn’t see the sentences, but the writing seemed flawless, both effortless and precise. In that book, the .5 star reduction was due to the content itself. Tara’s life was hard to read about, and it disturbed me on so many levels. There were horrifying descriptions of injuries and cringe-worthy scenes of manipulation and abuse. The book was excellent, but I can’t say that I “enjoyed” a lot of it.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend both Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Westover’s Educated. The hubbub was spot on for these two. I also recommend reading them back-to-back so you too can enjoy the connections between these oddly similar books. (There were a few more similarities not mentioned here due to spoilers.) If I were you, I’d start with Educated and allow yourself to feel all the shock and frustration and horror of Tara’s childhood (while also, of course, admiring her strength and endurance and brilliance). Then let Where the Crawdads Sing be a soothing balm for your reading soul.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing

Me and Mags, Episode 1: My Friend the Witch

Nothing like starting a new school in a new town in the middle of September on a Wednesday. I leaned on the bus window and breathed through my mouth to escape the aroma of vinyl and exhaust, trying to memorize the route to school. It was no use. I’d be helplessly lost without GPS, so I prayed my phone would have enough service to guide me home if I decided to skip out early.

My vintage Jansport with the rainbow patch occupied the seat next to me. I gripped its strap protectively. Who needs a friend when you have a backpack that smells like your childhood? Charcoal burgers and chlorine. Cinnamon sticks and attic dust. Our new house didn’t have an attic. It didn’t even have a garage.

A tall guy with a baseball cap got on the bus. He looked like trouble. I opened my backpack and rummaged around inside like I lost something important—my home? my life? my sanity?—and hoped he’d walk on by. He did. When I looked up again, a girl was standing next to my seat. Short blond hair, pink hairclip, retro 80’s t-shirt. She had a cell phone in one hand and a yogurt in the other. We locked eyes, and I made a move to pull my backpack aside, offer her a seat, but then her gaze drifted to the back of the bus, and she said, “There you are!” in a relieved voice. Later, when I looked back, I saw her sitting alone looking at her phone.

IMG_20190722_120159840We were stopped at a red light when I heard, “Watch this!” I turned around and saw Baseball Cap with an apple in his hand. He was lowering one of the windows. Outside, a girl with crazy curly brown hair and a small round Band-Aid on her nose was walking down the sidewalk. She had a leather satchel slung across her body and wore a long skirt and black combat boots. She was reading a book as she walked. With no warning, Baseball Cap threw the apple at her. Before I could hold my breath and hope it didn’t hit her, she caught the apple one-handed, took a large bite, then hurled it back at the bus. It smashed to pieces on the side. The light turned green. The boys around Baseball Cap hooted and hollered. The girl never took her eyes off her book.

*

It turns out, navigating a new school isn’t as hard as you might think. Looking for the library? Tail someone with a lot of books. Need the restroom? Follow the smell of perfume and vapes. Trying to get to the gym? Just swim against the stream of kids carrying violin cases. Math is math no matter what color the fake wood desks are, and the art of evasion is consistent across time zones: don’t engage, don’t make eye contact, look bored.

I kept my head down through my morning classes and spoke as little as possible, observing my new classmates from a wall of body language that I hoped said, “Leave me alone.” In English, a girl argued with the teacher about her grade in front of the entire room, then muttered “Freaking Communist” as she stomped back to her desk. A guy with smooth tawny skin and dark curly hair whispered, “Calm down, Shay,” but she shot back, “Shut up, Vik” and sneered at him.

For the most part, life went on around me, and no one paid me much attention until lunch, when Operation: Avoidance came to a screeching halt.

I’d been expecting a cavernous room of long, prison-like tables where I could slip into a vacant seat and eat my chicken salad and Cheetos unnoticed. Instead, this school’s cafeteria looked more like a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon. Small tables of different sizes and shapes crowded into a space that wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Students filled most of the chairs and stools, while some lounged on the tile floor, picnic-style. Every table with an empty chair filled quickly as more students arrived, fist-bumping each other and sliding into seats they’d obviously claimed weeks ago.

Every table but one.

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At a small round table near the recycling bins sat the girl who caught Baseball Cap’s apple. Next to her were two empty chairs. I tightened my grip on my lunch bag and walked over. The girl was eating a bowl of noodles and reading a book, but she looked up when I approached. The Band-Aid on her nose was gone, but now there was one on her chin.

“Hi,” I said. “Is this seat taken?” I gestured to the chair on her left.

“Yes,” she said, “but the other one’s not. Care to join me?”

“Sure. Thanks.” I sat down in the vacant seat just as an empty Coke can went flying over the table. It hit the rim of one of the recycle bins, then bounced inside.

“Yes!” Baseball Cap high-fived a fellow cap-wearer, then smirked in our direction. “What happened, Maggot? Nick yourself shaving this morning?”

The girl turned a page in her book, then said, “Better a nick than a celery stick, Mr. Brand.”

He rolled his eyes. “Freak.” On his way back to his table, his foot slid out from under him. To avoid falling, he grabbed the shoulder of a girl seated nearby, spilling her Smart Water all over her and himself.

“What did he slip on?” the curly-haired girl asked.

“Huh?”

“What made him fall? Can you see?” She was standing up, craning her neck.

I squinted in the direction of the chaos. “It looks like a squished grape.”

The girl looked thoughtful. “Green or red?”

“Um… green.”

“Hmm.” She sat down and made a note in the book, which I realized now was actually a journal. Then she closed it and turned her gold-brown eyes on me. “I’m Magdalena,” she said. “People I like call me Mags.”

“Hi Mags,” I said. “I’m Hadley.”

I took my plastic container of chicken salad out of my lunch bag. Mags went back to slurping her noodles. No one ever sat down in the other seat.

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A few minutes before lunch ended, Mags shoved her empty bowl into a pocket of her satchel and closed her journal. “You’re new,” she said.

“Yep.” I licked Cheeto dust from my fingers. “Got any advice for me?”

Mags’ eyes lit up. “Tons,” she said. “For starters, never confuse nightshade with wolfsbane. Also, avoid the girls bathroom outside the library. It’s haunted.”

“Noted,” I said. The bell rang.

*

I didn’t see Mags again until 8th period AP Biology. The teacher, Ms. Archer, gave a pop quiz. She said I could take it “just to see how you do.” My last school was obviously ahead of this one because the questions were easy. I breezed through them, then went back and marked two answers wrong on purpose. Pretending I was still working, I snuck peeks over my cardboard privacy screen, scanning the room. Everyone had their heads down, working, until I got to Mags. Over her privacy screen, her eyes were fixed on me. She raised her quiz paper, as if to study it closely. On the back, in large, loopy, capital letters, it read “LUNCH TOMORROW?” I gave a quick nod, then went back to pretending to work.

*

After school, I got utterly, helplessly lost. I couldn’t find my locker because I was upstairs when I was supposed to be downstairs, and then I accidentally exited out the back of the school, instead of the side where the buses pick up. By the time, I got to where I was supposed to be, bus #313 was gone. I collapsed on a bench, dug out my phone and opened my map app. I was still sitting there, trying to figure out which direction I was supposed to walk when Mags appeared before me.

“Not a bus rider?” she asked.

“Not today.” I showed her my phone. “Can you point me the right way? I have a terrible sense of direction.”

Mags peered at the screen without touching it. “That’s where you live?”

I nodded.

“That’s close to me. I’ll walk with you.”

Mags walked fast and talked faster. She covered everything from politics to plant species to the perils of popularity in the span of a block. I tried to keep up.

“The biggest problem with teenagers today,” she said as we rounded a corner, “is that they don’t think for themselves anymore. Bunch of guppies, all of them.”

“You mean sheep?”

She shook her head. “Sheep don’t eat each other.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Someday,” Mags said, “I’m going to turn this school into a fish tank. Can you imagine how awesome that will be? Standing outside, tapping on the glass, while all these wide-eyed mouth-breathers swim around in each other’s poop fighting for the crumbs we throw on top?”

“Um, yeah,” I said. “That does sound pretty awesome.”

When we got to my street, Mags pointed out my house and said, “Think you can make it from here?”

“Yeah, thanks. For everything—walking me home, letting me sit with you at lunch, the advice about wolfsbane.”

Mags tilted her head and raised one eyebrow. “Of course. After all, what are complete strangers for?”

*

“So, how was it?” Mom opened the pizza box and set down three plates.

Justin stuffed a slice in his mouth and gave a thumbs-up sign. Mom cracked open her sparkling water and gave me a sideways glance. “How about you? Did you talk to anyone?”

“It was ok,” I said. “I sat with a girl named Mags at lunch.”

Justin huffed, and a dot of tomato-sauce-spit flew out of his mouth. “Magdalena DeVille? She’s a witch.”

It didn’t bother me that after one day in a new town, my little brother already knew the ins and outs of not only his social circle but mine too. He’d always been plugged in to the gossip superhighway in a way I hadn’t, even at my most popular. I thought about what he’d said. Maybe Mags was a witch. I realized I didn’t care.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s got some crazy idea about turning the high school into a fish tank.”

Mom and Justin froze, looking at me strangely. That’s when I heard it. That sound. That high, staccato sound that had been missing from my life for months.

I was laughing.

*

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Posted in Writing

The Other House

“The Other House” was first published in 2016 in Under the Bed, Volume 4, #6. Since the digital magazine is no longer available, I’d like to share the story here.

The idea for this tale came from my friend’s three-year-old daughter who used to talk about the “other house” she had. She was quite convincing about this alternate home, and it got my imagination going. I like this story because it’s not meant to scare kids… it’s meant to scare parents. Enjoy!

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*

The Other House

by Carie Juettner

Dee’s parents laughed when she first mentioned her “other house.” After all, she was only two and had never lived anywhere else. They encouraged her creativity, asking questions, but Dee was pretty vague on the specifics.

“I go there sometimes,” she said, while staring out the window from her car seat.

“What do you do there?”

“Play.”

When Dee turned three, her vocabulary grew, and with it the descriptions of her other house. She talked of a bedroom with blue walls and white carpet. She described a bed with curtains at the top.

Dee’s parents thought their daughter’s imagination was cute. They thought it showed intelligence to be making up stories at such a young age.

“She comes up with the funniest things,” Dee’s mom told a coworker. “Pictures she describes, little bits of songs we’ve never heard before.” She shrugged. “I mean, I guess she could be picking this stuff up at daycare, but it’s so detailed.”

There was something to Dee’s stories that gave them a sense of accuracy—something in the way she held her little hands to demonstrate the size of the blue stool she swore she stood on to brush her teeth, something in the way she enunciated her imaginary friend’s name. GEN-E-VIEVE. There were definitely no Genevieves at daycare. It was not surprising that Dee had imaginary playmates, but that she’d created such a vivid setting for them to exist in. When asked where these friends were, Dee looked people straight in the eye and said, “my other house.”

Dee’s parents smiled at each other and marveled at their remarkable child.

*            *            *

“It’s just a phase,” Ms. Zenia told Dee’s mom. “Many kids have rich imaginations at this age. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“But, it’s just… she’s four now, and she’s been talking about this house and these people since she was two.” Dee’s mom blushed, knowing how insubstantial her argument sounded. She tried a different tack. “Dee’s just so obsessed with this place. The other day, she wanted her purple giraffe. Well, she doesn’t have a purple giraffe, never has. But Dee had a fit. She started saying, ‘It’s in the other house! I left it in my other house!’ It was the biggest tantrum we’ve ever seen. I tried to calm her down with the yellow monkey she loves, but she wasn’t having it. It took everything in my parent arsenal to get through that one. You don’t think, I mean, she doesn’t have… psychological problems? Does she?”

The Pre-K teacher smiled. “No, you don’t need to worry about that. She interacts with others, she makes eye contact, she’s an excellent conversationalist. I honestly don’t see anything to be concerned about here at school. Is she sleeping okay?”

“Oh yes, fine. Dee’s a great sleeper. That’s one way we lucked out as parents. She’s been sleeping through the night since, well, since before she was even a year old. I used to think about waking her up to check on her, but I never did. My friends told me enough horror stories about how hard it is to get kids back to sleep, so I’d just watch her breathe to make sure she was okay.” Dee’s mom wrung her hands. “I guess I’m a worrier.”

“All parents are worriers,” Ms. Zenia said. “Dee’s fine. She’s very creative and maybe just a little bit stubborn too.”

Dee’s mom laughed. “Well, you’re right about that.”

*            *            *

Dee’s dad felt the engine of his work truck shudder. Come on, he thought, get me home and then you can die on me. Right then his cell phone chirped to let him know it was running on empty as well. Damn it. He’d forgotten the charger. He picked up the phone and called his wife.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Probably. But this last run took longer than I thought and now the truck’s acting funny. Phone’s dying too. I think I can make it home, but if I’m late, don’t worry. It just means I’m walking to a gas station or waiting for a tow truck.”

“Walking to a gas station? Where are you?”

“About forty miles from home, I think. I’ll be fine.” He knew she would worry, but he didn’t want her to.

“It’s almost eleven o’clock, and it’s supposed to rain. I don’t want you walking on the side of the highway. It’s not safe. You could be—“

“How’s Dee? She asleep yet?”

“Of course. She’s been out like a light since seven. She’s sleeping so soundly. I felt her forehead and it seemed kind of hot, but I don’t know. She was asking for her frog pajamas again earlier.”

“She doesn’t have any frog pajamas.”

“I know, that’s what I told her. But of course she swears she has them at her ‘other house.’ I’m beginning to really hate that place. I think she likes the people there more than us.”

“She’ll be fine.” He could practically hear his wife wringing her hands. His phone beeped again. “I will too, but I’ve got to go.”

“Okay,” she said. “Be careful.”

Dee’s dad turned the phone off and chewed on his thumbnail. It had started to rain. He’d told his wife he had to make this run tonight, but that wasn’t true. He’d volunteered for it. The extra money was nice, but what he really needed was a break from the bedtime routine. He loved his daughter. God how he loved her. But it bothered him the way she interrupted his bedtime stories with tales of her own. They were nothing particularly special, but the glee with which she shared them made them seem magical. Whenever he asked where the stories came from, her answer was always the same. “My other house.”

It was ridiculous, he knew, to be jealous of an imaginary place, to feel left out of his little girl’s bedtime stories. But he did.

The engine shuddered again. He looked out the window at the dark stretch of highway and decided his wife might be right. Maybe walking wasn’t such a good idea. He took the next exit and turned into a quaint little neighborhood. His truck made it half a block before dying completely. The phone quickly followed suit.

He got out of the truck. Thankfully, the rain had stopped. In fact, the sky had lightened considerably. He decided the moon must be extra full behind the bank of clouds. He walked up the sidewalk, looking for a house with lights on. He didn’t want to scare anybody, just needed to use their phone and ask them where he was. The neighborhood didn’t seem to have street signs and the numbers on the curbs were too faded to read.

At the end of the street he came to a one story brick house with the porch light on and warm light spilling out from two of the front windows. There was a small bicycle in the front yard, making him wish he were home with his daughter. Dee had been begging for a bike. He suddenly regretted not getting her one for her fifth birthday.

A woman answered the door when he knocked. She wore jeans, a faded red sweatshirt, and a smile. She was wiping her hands on a dish towel. Dee’s dad stood far back from the door as he explained his situation and said he’d be more than happy to wait on the porch if she would just bring him a phone, but she said, “Nonsense,” and invited him in. “Don’t mind the mess,” she said. “You know how kids are. I’ll go grab the phone.”

He was surprised at her hospitality, considering the late hour and the fact that he didn’t exactly look respectable in his dirty work shirt and stubble. But he thanked her and stepped inside. The house felt warm and comfortable, despite the clutter. A dark hallway stretched off to his right, and he could hear a TV on low in a room somewhere to the left. There was a clock on the wall whose battery must have died. It said 5:25. Toys were strewn about everywhere, and without meaning to, he stepped on one. He reached down and picked it up. It was a purple giraffe. He laughed. He’d have to ask the woman where she got it.

She came back then, saying, “Here, I’ll trade you.” She took the stuffed giraffe from his hand and replaced it with a cell phone. Then, seeing that his eyes had traveled to the table of empty plates and glasses half full of iced tea, she said, “Oh don’t worry. You didn’t interrupt anything. We just finished an early dinner.” Dee’s dad resisted the urge to look at his watch, to reassure himself that it was close to midnight. Instead, he just nodded. “I’ll give you some privacy,” she said. “If you need anything, my name is Ginny.”

He stared at her as she disappeared around the corner toward the TV sounds. She must have turned the volume up because suddenly the words became clear. “That’s it for sports. Thanks for joining us. We’ll update you about those rain chances at ten.” He looked back at the clock on the wall. The battery wasn’t dead after all. The minute hand had moved. He looked down at the cell phone. The screen said 5:30. He glanced behind him at the front door. That was more than just porch light coming through the window.

Dee’s dad shook his head and leaned against the wall, suddenly needing support, and tried to catch his breath. From this angle, he could see an open door about halfway down the dark hallway. It led to a small bathroom, where a bright blue stool was tucked neatly beneath a sink. Across the hall, another door stood ajar. Voices, one deep and one childlike, emanated from the room beyond.

Unconsciously, he dialed a number on the phone. His wife picked up immediately. “Hello? Who’s this?”

“Me,” he said as he inched toward the open door.

“Oh thank goodness. It’s pouring here. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Truck broke down. Calling from a house.” He tiptoed on the white carpet, past a child’s Crayon drawing framed on the wall.

“Is a tow truck coming? How are you getting home?”

“I don’t know.” He reached the room and slowly poked his head around the doorframe. The walls were painted blue, and there was a small bed with a pink canopy. It was empty. He leaned farther. “Is Dee still asleep?”

“Like the dead. Why? Do you think I should wake her up?”

“No.”

Beside the bed, a man sat in a rocking chair reading a picture book. In his lap, smiling and laughing and wearing frog pajamas, was a little girl. His little girl. Dee.

He pressed his back against the hallway wall, heart pounding. “No. Don’t wake her up.”

From inside the room, he heard the man’s voice say, “Honey, I’ve told you. We don’t have a yellow monkey.”

 

© Carie Juettner, 2016.