This novel is
told as the first person narrative of a ten year old, Rainey. Rainey's mother
is in a mental institution when the mother's sister and her husband come to
live with the family ostensibly to help the hard working father take care of
his children. Freund tells the story in short staccato sentences. We see with
a neutral camera's eye. Just the facts. Perhaps this is the only way to view
it as the characters including Rainey are oddly emotionally numb to the
terrible existence they lead. Rainey shows us her girlish snapshot of a dull,
colorless, empty world. The title of the book is taken from the name of the town.
The four corners are really three: Moe's, the post office, and Willy's
Garage. The fourth corner is an empty space much like the empty space left by
the absent mother. Rainey has four siblings, two older and two much younger.
Rainey's aunt Merle brings her two children with her. Merle is no mother
substitute, cares for them only marginally and occasionally is extremely
valiantly to fend for herself. Freund's narrative is full of the things ten
year old children find fascinating like all manner of bodily secretions, of
picking scabs and eating them. All this has a ring of truth about childhood.
The family group never talk about the absent mother or about any feelings at
all. They talk of making cocoa or rat babies. Rainey says, "I hadn't thought
of her in days. At night, yes, when I was alone and the sky turned
inexplicably white for an instant after the blue and before the black, then I
thought of her saying softly, There's no use crying over spilled milk." (p.
There is little
emotional sustenance to be had but Rainey does not seem to regard this as odd.
It does not seem to occur to her that the life they live is horribly
emotionally scarring. (Not till Rainey is staying temporarily with the Zook
family do we see a caring home.) A visit from their mother sends the woman
back to the institution again. Rainey seems to believe that she and her
siblings are to blame for their mother's plight. Rainey is so emotionally starved
for attention that when she is sexually molested by an adult in a theatre she
is just grateful for the attention. She says, "I wished with all my power
that he would touch me again." (p. 98) and then "For the first time
in a long time I felt truly blessed." (p. 99).
rules seem to be that one does not complain about suffering. Rainey's mother, still
in grief about the loss of her brother in infancy, hallucinates hearing him.
Merle voices the reproach: "It was all in her head. There was no ghost.
Merle would bet her life on this. So my mother just better knock it off."
(p. 140). Rainey says that she is like her mother in that she has a big
imagination and that she is "gullible" (p. 148). Rainey is also rather
masochistic. She will not scream or call to someone to help her when she is
tied to a tree on a freezing cold day nor does she tell who did it.
seems to have rotten luck as one disaster and sickness after another occur.
When Rainey's mother is home again for a visit we see from her conversations
with her sister that the bad luck has extended back to their parents'
generation. Conflict and tragedy consumed them. Joan, Merle's daughter, and Merle
become tangled in a relationship with the father and son of the neighboring
family named Birdseye. This leads to a disturbing and tragic blow up that
changes all their lives. Joan has the attention of the Birdseye men. In the
end, when Joan is out of the picture, Rainey seems anxious to step into her
shoes: "Eddie Birdseye was looking at me carefully. Then he winked. Right
then, I know I would be next." (p. 240). This appears to be what Rainey
wants but is not likely to lead to a good end.
This book may
appeal most strongly to people who like realistic stories about real people. People
who are struggling to understand and come to terms with having lived in abusive
or neglectful homes may well find this novel disturbing though very moving.
Graves, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and topic editor of Psychology and
Fiction at suite101.com.