Two writers, one brand new and one experienced and award-winning begin to write a story about a child who possesses affection for extraordinary children—abused, neglected, ignored, sick, and dying. The stories share the same title, Child of My Heart. I was the new writer, fumbling for proper grammar and eloquent enough prose to tell Annie’s story, my story—the story of a nurse. On the other hand, Alice McDermott, already proficient in prose and confident enough to use her own style of grammar, tells the story of Theresa, a teenage girl on the cusp of fifteen who is clever and beloved by children and animals alike, but also a solitary soul with an already complex understanding of human nature. Theresa’s working class parents decide that their “born beautiful” daughter’s best chance in life is to marry a wealthy man, so she is raised on the east end of Long Island among the country houses of the rich. She’s the town’s most sought after babysitter when her favorite niece, Daisy (who is eight) comes to spend the summer. The story begins, “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.”
The precocious Theresa believes that Daisy is the least cared for child of her father’s sister who has six boys and one bossy sister, Bernadette. When Theresa visits the family, actually Daisy, she shows the reader what she’s made of by telling them a tall tale about how she and Daisy obtained over eight dozen lollypops:
“There was a barrel of lollipops beside the newspaper rack, a handwritten sign, TWO FOR A NICKEL. Her parents had made her too polite to ask for one, so I casually bought a hundred of them, refusing a paper bag and stuffing them instead into our pockets, pant pockets and coat pockets, and then lifting the hem of her sweater to form another pocket and filling it as well. When we got back to the house, we dumped all of them over her brothers and Bernadette, who were lying on the living-room floor watching their allotted hour of television before dinner. The lollipops in their wrappers were wet with snow, some were muddy from where we had dropped them on the walk home. “Where did you get these?” Bernadette asked, and before Daisy could answer, I said, “We found a lollipop tree. You should have come.” The boys said, “Yeah, sure,” but Bernadette couldn’t resist grilling us on the particulars, her eyes narrowed, her thin mouth opened skeptically, showing the little blowfish teeth. A house on the boulevard, I said. A willow tree. A huge willow tree filled with lollipops for the taking. The tree belongs to an old couple, I said, whose only child, a little boy, had dreamed of a lollipop tree in his front yard on the night he died, fifty years ago this very day. Once a year and only on this day, I said, they make his dream come true by filling their willow tree with lollipops. (And the odd thing is, I said, it was snowing in his dream, too, and it snows every year on this date the minute the old couple hangs the last lollipop on the tree.) They invite children from miles around. I’m surprised you guys have never heard about it before. The old couple serves hot chocolate out on their lawn while the children collect the lollipops from the tree. They hire tall men to help lift the smaller children high into the branches. The single rule is that you can pick only as many lollipops as you can carry home— no paper bags or suitcases, oh, and that the picking lasts for just one hour, from dusk to nightfall, to the second the first star appears. Corresponding to their son’s last hour on earth, since the evening star in the dark blue winter sky was the first thing the old couple had noticed when they went to the bedroom window only a minute after the doctor had pulled a blanket up over his peaceful little face. Although Bernadette squinted skeptically through it all, the boys had their backs to the TV set by the time I’d finished. “We’ll have to go next year,” Jack Jr. said softly. But Bernadette turned on Daisy. “Is this true?” she demanded. Daisy shrugged her thin shoulders. There was a remnant of hot chocolate on her upper lip and the top of her wiry hair was darkened by a little skullcap of melted snow. “You should have come,” she said matter-of-factly, skirting the lie. Child of my heart.”
And thus sets the stage for the rest of the novel.
In my Child of My Heart, Annie begins her story the summer just after she turns twelve when she has her first taste of death—not of a child she loves but of a beloved doll:
“I ran across the alley and hurdled myself over a neighbor’s croton hedge. Before my feet hit the ground I spotted an object that turned my spinning world to slow motion. I stopped to look at the thing, hoping my eyes had lied. But there on her chest was the tiny heart I’d drawn with a red ballpoint pen. My heart cried out but I couldn’t make a sound. From atop a trash heap I picked up my small broken doll and stared at her as if we were frozen in time. She was the most cherished thing I’d ever owned. The doll’s shiny yellow braids tied with tiny pink bows were torn from her scalp. Dirty smudges covered her naked body, her blue eyes scratched off, belly slashed open, a leg amputated. A filthy pink ribbon tied her one remaining possession to her hand—a tiny white toothbrush.”
The two protagonists, Theresa and Annie, deal with much more abuse of children, animals, and possessions. Although both stories seem gruesome—and parts of them are—the neglected children are cared for by spunky teenagers who refuse to accept the world the way it is.
In Alice McDermott’s effortless and passionate prose, she brings the “expected” portion of her story to an end. But, this is not the end of the book:
“Daisy speaks. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be back here.’ I laughed, just a puff of air against her scalp. ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘I don’t know,’ she whispered. ‘I just have that feeling.’ I tightened my arm around her. ‘Of course you will,’ I said. ‘Every summer. You could come at Easter, too, if you want, even Christmas. You can come back anytime, all the way until you’re grown up.’ I said it fondly, assuredly, with all the authority I knew she gave me, all the authority I knew I had, here in my own kingdom, but I also said it against a flash of black anger that suddenly…made me want to banish every parable, every song, every story ever told, even by me, about children who never returned. The newborn children named for Irish patriots. The children who said, I want to show it to the angels. Children who kissed their toys at night and said, Wait for me, who dreamt lollipop trees, who bid farewell to their parents from the evening star, children who crawled ghostly into their grieving father’s lap, who took to heart an old man’s advice that they never grow old, and never did. All my pretty ones? All? I wanted them banished, the stories, the songs, the foolish tales of children’s tragic premonitions. I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesn’t happen, a world of only color, no form. Out of my head and more to my liking: a kingdom by the sea, eternal summer, a brush of fairy wings and all dark things banished, age, cruelty, pain, poor dogs, dead cats, harried parents, lonely children, all the coming griefs, all the sentimental, maudlin tales fashioned out of the death of children.”
I hope you'll read and enjoy both.