Sunday, December 01, 2019

Recommended: "Ballad of Weary Daughters"

It's hard to authentically tell stories from the POV of children and youth trying to keep family and self together in the face of parental loss, dysfunction, abuse, or neglect (or institutional abuse). One Native writer who has done that exceptionally well is Vickie L. Sears (Cherokee). Her devastating, often-anthologized "Grace" should be required reading for professionals who work with foster children or other young ones pushed too early into the role of looking out for themselves and their siblings.

"Ballad of Weary Daughters" by Kristine Wyllys (Eastern Band Cherokee) is another insightful story of young people carrying family survival on their shoulders. It's part of an anthology "starring disabled teens" in Unbroken (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2018, edited by Marieke Nijkamp). We're reviewing it on AICL because of several references to the Tsalagi people and language.

"Ballad" is told in the voice of contemporary high schooler River Smith. River is the daughter of a Tsalagi mother and a white Christian pastor who has recently abandoned his congregation and his family to run off with another woman. River's mother manages to keep putting one foot in front of the other, working long hours to keep food on the table. River steps into the caretaker role for her younger siblings, who are all showing signs of severe stress. It doesn't help that River has a mental illness and her doctors have had trouble getting her medications right.

River and her beloved friend, Lucy, are the "weary daughters" of the story's title. They both feel the stress of barely holding on, and they recognize that their relationship is what gets them through each difficult day. In teaching and social services, when we hear about "resilience factors," this is one of the factors they're talking about: friends who go beyond the typical expectations and serve as literal lifelines for the ones who are struggling. You can't imagine how either River or Lucy could get by without the other's sustaining presence. There is no one else to help them, no support services.

I've read other fiction about teens that feels like a circa-2005 Ruby Payne anecdote catalog of poverty-related dysfunction and catastrophe, where an author just won't stop dumping on the main character.  But "Ballad" works for me because Wyllys shows us a family in what could be called a slow-moving emergency -- one that ravels over time. In real life, those aren't the kind that tend to qualify for substantial official help for a family, but the burden on a teen can still be nearly unbearable. River and her family have lived through one emergency -- the days and weeks after the father's departure. Another may be brewing with one of River's sisters, and River's mental health could become more fragile.

The story ended with me loving both River and Lucy. I wanted more for them -- and more about them. I hope Kristine Wyllys will let us hear from them again.

The Cherokee (Tsalagi) content feels matter-of-fact; Wyllys is not teaching readers; she is saying "This is River's life, in which family conversations contain some Tsalagi words, absent Tsalagi family members are important, and the children are aware that their father's congregation views them as Other because they are not white."

I strongly recommend this story. Other entries in Unbroken are also definitely worth reading.

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