Looking at Loss Without Regret 

A Kentucky writer traces her lost child, and childhood

A Kentucky writer traces her lost child, and childhood

Surrendered Child: A birth mother's journey

By Karen Salyer McElmurray (University of Georgia Press, 249 pp., $29.95)

McElmurray will read at Vanderbilt University on Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. in Wilson 126.

Karen McElmurray is often described in blurb-speak as an "award-winning Appalachian writer"—a phrase which brings me close to despair. Do we really need more earnest, overworked prose about the strange beauty of the South and her freak-show denizens? I grew up in the quintessential small Southern town, studied Southern history, pored over every word Flannery O'Connor ever wrote—and if I don't want to read this stuff, who does?

But McElmurray is not your run of the mill A-WAW. A native of eastern Kentucky, she does include the obligatory shotguns, redbone hounds, peanuts in the Coke, bacon grease on the greens, and plenty of Jesus. But McElmurray's work is not about these things any more than Edith Wharton's novels are about millinery and blanc mange. McElmurray first made a name for herself with short stories and an ambitious debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (Hill Street Press, 1999), which uses multiple voices and layered narratives to tell the story of a small, sad family. With Surrendered Child she moves from fiction to memoir, but her themes—the burden and power of the body, the inescapable hold of the past, the gulf between men and women—remain the same and gain depth from the authenticity of her own voice.

The only child of a schoolteacher father and a deeply troubled mother, McElmurray gave birth to a son in 1973. She was 16. Even though she and the baby's father married, they gave the infant up for adoption, much against the wishes of both families. Surrendered Child is not, mercifully, a documentary account of a heartbroken mother's search for her lost child; McElmurray deeply mourns the loss of her son, but her narrative is remarkably free of regret or recrimination against herself or anyone else. Instead, she casts a sharp, analytical eye on her own choice.

The book is a meditation in the most literal sense. It trains a laser-like focus on mundane details and fleeting exchanges in order to illuminate big mysteries that defeat direct examination. In straightforward, unflinching recollection it lays out McElmurray's history—from her abused childhood, to her days as an acid-dropping teen bride, to her compulsive search for a lover who can replace all she has lost.

McElmurray's portrait of her mother, who was terrorized by fears and obsessions that turned the family home into a sparkling prison, is the heart and strength of the book. McElmurray doesn't cut her mother any slack, never puts a happy face on her tyranny, yet her sympathy for the older woman is palpable: "On Sunday mornings she kneels beside a coffee table. She peers underneath a couch, checking for dust. She wears gloves, new ones, because it is Sunday. And because it is Sunday, she is gentler than usual. Sunlight trails across the lawn, all the way from the church where she was saved. That light, as pure as she once was, enters our house. Her gloved finger traces the edge of an arm, the seat of a chair. Sunday, and she prays for no trace of dust, no shadow in our home."

McElmurray treats herself with the same clear-eyed sympathy, and does not shy away from the knowledge that her drug use, and her obsessions with food and sex, mirror something of her mother's mad helplessness: "Over and over I have fallen into this kiss, into his old-clothes scent and his excuses, and soon I am kneeling by a chair, unzipping, sipping him, wassail, riotous and too sweet. I am ready, like always, to forgive his two-days' lateness and the way the glass of wine at the door is a token of something not affection."

The word that kept coming to mind as I read Surrendered Child was Ahamkara—the Hindu concept of personal will that creates all suffering, yet which also compels us to survive by any means necessary. McElmurray's decision to relinquish her son was a willful act which seemed in some way intended to free her from the hold of her own mother's warped will. It was an extraordinary act of self-assertion that made possible her life as a writer and teacher, but it created a wound that even the recovery of her now-grown son cannot fully heal. It's a testament to McElmurray's talent that she can send her readers' minds wandering across cultures and musing such paradoxes while keeping her story firmly planted in the bitter ground of Kentucky coal country.


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