UP FROM THE BLUE by Susan Henderson
Books allow us to run away from our lives. Sometimes the world we escape into and the emotional journey we experience is a joy. Other times the events within those bound pages make us appreciate our real life. Whether I end up coveting another world or not, whenever I read a book I marvel at how we are all connected. The connection might happen through a turn-of-phrase, or perhaps the situation is what resonates and binds us. Either way we are the stuff that books are made of and this is why we are drawn to the characters within them. This truth permeates throughout Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue.
When Chekov said, “Life is a course business,” he might have had Henderson’s protagonist in mind. Eight-year-old Tillie Harris’s life is hard. 1975, the year her mother disappears, is the hardest ever. Her father and brother do their best to treat the mother’s absence as a minor blip in their lives. But the loss of her mother is a major episode of chaos for Tillie. As a result she is 100% emotional and barrels through life with all the impulsiveness we expect of an eight-year old girl. And because Henderson capture’s Tillie’s traumatic youth with such accuracy, in the beginning, I often felt I was no longer an adult.
Tillie’s childlike insistence and the strength of her will is so powerful, when she uncovers the truth we fear her discovery is false. The uncertainty of what to believe is what kept this reader hooked. I even began to contemplate how easily a person’s desires and hopes could turn against them if they lacked emotional support.
When a novel prompts us to step out of the immediate situation and examine a grander scheme, we know we are in the hands of a seasoned writer. Up From the Blue shows us that Susan Henderson is such a force.
Yet, as much as I was drawn to Tillie and empathized with her plight, the book vibrates with such courage I never worried about her. The strength and power of Tillie’s hope lead me to believe she would be okay even before I knew whether or not the ending was going to be a happy or sad one. My lack of concern puzzled me.
Then the pieces fell into place. Up From the Blue begins and ends with Tillie Harris as an adult and on the verge of giving birth to her first child. Although the early labor forces her to connect with her estranged father and is a logical springboard for her to remember 1975—the most difficult year of her life—it didn’t work for me.
Henderson’s child protagonist wins our hearts in the opening. We are at her side as she catapults forward, back and sideways against the external forces that shape her life. She has dreams, hopes and goals. She explores different ways of coping, forces her family to face the truth and question their own choices. Her actions lead Tillie to discover her own truth and her realizations cause her to change. Why wasn’t that enough?
Henderson does well to connect Tillie’s world as an adult to the past with two additional chapters in the middle of the book, but although they work technically they removed this reader from the story. I’m not a fan of frame stories, so I’m willing to admit my reaction to Henderson’s use of the frame may be colored by my general dislike of them. However I, personally, still believe the impact of her experience would have been stronger left raw.
Yet, disliking frame stories is not a reason to avoid UP From the Blue. In seventh grade I disliked Mr. Koss’s rule that everyone had to sit facing the front of the classroom. No one was allowed to turn to the back of the room, not even when a student was answering a question and Mr. Koss was standing in the back. His response, “Face front. Nothing is written on my face!” Mr. Koss had a lot of rules, And he was my all time favorite English teacher. I’m not a fan of frame stories, but it is impossible not to fall under the spell of Tillie Harris in Susan Henderson’s debut.
Examine the power of hope with Up From The Blue.