Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: Made in the U.S.A.

I had such mixed feelings about this book. Many years ago, I read Billie Letts' Oprah Winfrey pick, Where the Heart Is, which told the story of a young girl who is abandoned while on a road trip and takes up temporary residence inside the local WalMart, where she delivers her baby, naming her America.

This was another book I chose because I could listen to it on longer drives. I must admit that I almost gave up on it after the first few tracks. But, I didn't have anything else to listen to and was due for another hour long stint in the car by myself, so I gave in and listened anyway.

Made in the U.S.A. tells the story of 15 year old Lutie McFee and her 11 year old brother, Fate. As the book opens, in another Walmart, Lutie is shoplifting a sweater when she is interrupted by her father's ex-girlfriend and legal guardian, Floy Satterfield. After Floy drops dead of a heart attack, right inside the Walmart, Lutie is determined that she and Fate will not go to foster care. They take off in Floy's car, heading for Las Vegas, in the hopes of finding their father (who had left a year ago and never responded to letters sent to his address).

I struggled with not wanting to spend time dwelling in the immoral activities and the seedier side of life that these kids encounter. For quite a while (especially while they were living on the streets in Las Vegas), I could barely tolerate listening to the story, despite a very engaging young narrator (Cassandra Morris) and the internal desire for something to finally work out for the two kids. Things continued to go from bad to worse. Eventually, Lutie makes arrangements to film a porn movie in order to secure the $600 the two would need for an apartment in the Paradise school district (where Fate hopes to attend a top notch new elementary school). She is robbed of this money and beaten almost beyond recognition. Finally, a savior (in the form of a homeless man named Juan Vargas) enters the scene and transports the two runaways to his home in Oklahoma, where his family runs a circus.

From the time the kids arrive in Oklahoma to the end of the book, it was as if the book was being redeemed. Juan Vargas has been running from his own demons and must confront his deep need for family. Lutie and Fate both discover their own redemption, of sorts, as well.

Recently, my blogging friend Amy discussed this dilemma as well. She wrote:

"A few weeks ago, I helped a library patron find a few books to take home. "I want something nice and cheery," she said. "Not sad or offensive. I don't understand why anyone wants to read anything about the awful things that happen in the world." I sent her on her merry, oblivious way with some gentle reads and a metaphorical eye roll. We read about awful things because by reading about them we can understand them without having to experience them. Or we read about them because we have experienced them and are searching for commonality, for someone else's experience to erase the loneliness of our own. We read about the ugly, dark things in the world so as to understand how people overcome them, so we can see courage in the face of trouble and hope set against despair. We read so our empathy may be doubled. Ignoring the awful things that happen doesn't make them go away. Ignorance make them more awful. Keeping the dark things in the dark gives them more power. Shining a light on them takes it away. Choosing to read brings that needed light."

Sometimes I totally understand that feeling of not wanting to read anything that is disturbing or unsettling. I get wanting to escape from the realities of this depraved world. However, the ending of a book often determines whether I feel the book was worth slogging through all the garbage in between.

In this case, I do feel glad to have read the book. By the final chapters, I was weeping as I listened to the raw emotions of Lutie dealing with her past losses and her difficulty in making life work. I felt invested in these motley characters, despite their bad choices and foul language. I wanted the best for them. Since this wasn't a Christian book, I didn't receive that "best" in the packaging of spiritual redemption. But, there was redemption and lessons were learned. The value of family was graphically elaborated. I felt edified and built up, despite the moments when I declared that I was "really hating the book I'm reading right now."

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