Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going, by Christie Hodgen

This book was really hard for me to read, but it was great. It was hard because it's the story of a girl whose father shoots himself. It's not told chronologically, since some of it is about after their father died--but I certainly read it as a book primarily about the daughter and her father, before he dies. However, it does move back and forth between the family's life before (the girl, Frankie; her brother, Teddy; their mom, a waitress at Friendly's; and their dad, a Vietnam vet who's an amputee) and their lives after. Frankie is nine and Teddy is six at the end of the book, which is soon before their father dies; they seem older than that, but also not--their relationship with their dad wouldn't work the same if they were older.

The last part of the book takes place in 1979 then in 1980, when their dad kills himself. The last few chapters are about the Christmas break of 1979. Frankie says,
Like most kids, Teddy and I looked forward to Christmas for all the obvious reasons. ... We also looked forward to Christmas break because it was the only time of year that our father told war stories. Something about the season always put him in a talkative mood, and for a two-week span we'd hear all about his adventures in Vietnam. We never stopped to wonder why the holidays brought this out in him. We simply looked forward to the stories the way we looked forward to the giant ham and the chocolate cake that our mother prepared each Christmas. Every year these stories were better than the last, more outrageous, more spectacular. We spent long afternoons listening to our father. The three of us huddled together in our indoor fort, which we fashioned by draping bedsheets over the kitchen table.
Over the course of the dad telling his war stories over that last Christmas break, Frankie begins to realize that they aren't all true. This is moving and painful and real over and over--it comes to a head when their dad finally says that Leonard Holmes, his buddy during the war, who is his sidekick in many of the stories, was so inept that their father had to take his gun-shooting test for him so he could go to war...
"Everyone else was running for their lives, but this kid couldn't wait. He was such a bad shot, though, he couldn't qualify. Couldn't shoot a gun to save his life. ... So I took the test instead. Our superiors were off at a distance, and I shot his gun for him so he'd qualify. ... And he went with us. Off to war. ... He got killed a few months later. I got shot trying to save him." He was speaking plainly, without the usual traces of mischief and joy. This was the shortest, strangest, most disappointing story he had ever told us.
In earlier stories, their father has talked about how Leonard Holmes was a "nice kid," and their father "eventually trained Leonard to be a competent soldier" through the use of "mind power," which is when he starts "basic training" with his kids, and when Frankie asks "Whatever happened to Leonard?" their father tells them,
"Well it just so happens that Leonard Holmes is one of the richest men in the country these days. ... And do you know why? ... Because of me ... Because of mind power. Leonard Holmes was a scared little kid when he met me, and now he's a captain of industry."
I liked this book so much. Highly recommended. Maybe I didn't like it, but it pulled me in and I think it still hasn't let me go. Hodgen nails the kids' relationship with their father, the remove of the mother, the relationship between brother and sister...the sister and brother growing up and pulling away... Beautifully done. I'm looking forward to reading her other books.

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