Literature is full of novels about children, but novels where the point of view is distinctly parental — these are few and far between. Children who survive terrible childhoods often grow up to write about them, but the survivors of hair-raising bouts of parenting are less likely to publish their stories. The day-to-day truth of parenting is largely composed of drudgery and small, hiccuping epiphanies that don’t add up to anything resembling the scale of literature.
Craig Lesley‘s new book, Storm Riders, goes a long way toward remedying the lack of parental fiction. This autobiographical novel focuses on a father, Clark Wood, who attempts to raise an orphaned Native American foster son who is afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome. (Lesley, who lives in the Pacific Northwest and is white, is the author of Winterkill, The Sky Fisherman and Riversong, which also deal with Native American themes.)
The boy, Wade, is the cousin of Clark’s Tlingit wife, Payette, though Payette soon bails on the marriage. Clark, whose own father abandoned the family when he was little, can‘t see giving up on Wade, and the two simply carry on as a family, despite their now tenuous connection. This choice is played out without the usual rounds of congratulations or even high hopes: Clark never sees himself as a do-gooder, maybe a do-enougher at best. And this is to his credit.
In an early scene filled with dramatic momentum, a little Japanese girl in Clark’s neighborhood goes missing. Her body is eventually found in a culvert, a victim of an accidental drowning, though Clark is haunted by the possibility that his erratic stepson may have seen — or done — more than he admits. A few days later, when Clark runs into the bereaved father on the street, the man induces Clark to promise to raise Wade to be “a good citizen.” Clark gets very emotional about the promise, but this isn‘t the kind of motivation that sticks — his idealism is swallowed up by real life, of course: It’s just another one of those painful moments in a long, hard journey where very few specific acts or words stand out as noble or defining.
This novel demonstrates with great compassion that it isn‘t that the good times keep you going through the bad — it’s just that one survives the bad times. The keeping-going part comes automatically, like breathing. In the world Lesley portrays, human beings are neither good nor bad, brave nor weak, just remarkably conflicted and resilient creatures.
Lesley shows just what it‘s like to take care of a kid like Wade, day in and day out. Wade isn’t a monster. In fact, he‘s just your average 4-year-old on a bad day — except that for Wade, the bad days happen almost every day. By giving the reader enough of a taste of daily life with Wade, Lesley makes clear the combination of exhaustion and attachment that allows Clark to tune out real danger signs: fits of anger, minor episodes of violence. These successive, unfulfilled crises wear Clark down, and fill the reader with a sense of dismay mixed with foreboding. As Wade grows up, Clark remarries, buys a house, has a child of his own — and yet the tension surrounding Wade remains an unsolvable constant, eventually endangering his new marriage just as it did his last.
At one critical point in the story, Clark remembers seeing Wade accidentally squeeze the life out of a pet hamster after the animal bit him on the arm — it’s a scene that makes Wade out to be Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and in many ways he is just that. Like Steinbeck, Lesley, for all his talent and skill, is at heart what James Baldwin referred to as an “impassioned pamphleteer.” (Baldwin was referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe.) Quite aside from its poignant documentary accuracy as a chronicle of experience, Storm Riders is an example of Baldwin‘s “American social-protest novel.” That is, its motivation for being is to stir up feelings of outrage over a social condition — in this case, fetal alcohol syndrome in the Native American population. Lesley makes clear his agenda in a “statement from the author” that accompanies press copies of the book: “The problem of damaged children is, I believe, a ticking time bomb in our society,” he writes, having just described the extent to which the story of the novel parallels his own.
While this social consciousness may not appear on the surface to be anything but a compelling reason to write, the result is indeed tainted by the existence of a nonliterary agenda. Writing in 1955, Baldwin argued that the main problem with this type of novel is that it’s basically a manipulative setup. Not only are emotions deliberately whipped up in service of an ideology, even worse, the process of rendering characters that are poster children (or poster adults) for the cause ends up stripping them of what Baldwin calls human complexity: “Only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”
In short, the agenda of the protest novel has a sanitizing effect on fiction, and tends to deactivate its potency. Lesley‘s novel suffers from this very problem, for while it’s a compelling read from page to page, there‘s a reason it comes packaged with testimonials from other parents of afflicted children and fact sheets from the publisher: You need to know that what you’re reading is based on a true story for the book to hang together.
Lesley came very, very close to creating a successful novel. If he had stuck to the single announced agenda, that of creating awareness around fetal alcohol syndrome, I‘d even be tempted to say that he had written one of the first really good protest novels.
But there’s more. He also promised the Tlingits he met while researching the novel that he would make people aware of a U.S. Navy massacre of the Tlingit village in 1883, and he does so by inserting his characters into a ceremony surrounding the hundredth-year anniversary of the massacre. This passage, near the end of the novel, feels oddly inorganic (I read it before I read the press kit, and felt the awkward shift in tone before I understood why it happened), and the author‘s statement makes it clear why this is so.
The problem is that, by honoring his agreement with the Tlingit, he breaches his agreement with his reader. The insertion of the Tlingit cause into the story reads like a public-service announcement, a bit of political product placement, if you will. It reminds this reader of the recent flap over television networks receiving “credit” from the government for writing their anti-drug public-service announcements into the scripts of sitcoms and dramas. It doesn’t matter how worthy the message is or isn‘t, there’s simply no room for this technique in a work of literary fiction.
Ultimately, what saves this novel from being a TV book-club disease-of-the-week story is Lesley‘s dryly unsentimental point of view. Though in the end Storm Riders reveals itself to be something less than a novel, it’s still a book that is worth reading on its merits, especially for anyone who has ever felt alone in the role of caregiver.