New Novelist Never Misses the Mark with “Mother”

Posted: July 12, 2011 in Literature, Uncategorized

The world of undiscovered literature could rather be likened to the world of Off-Off-Broadway theatre; nine times out of ten the product may provide a few redeeming qualities, but for the most part remains unmemorable except to those persons directly involved. But it is that tenth glorious time that everything brilliantly falls into place, and has the potential to soar to the heavens. So it goes with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother: An Experiment in Fiction, by author/playwright and activist Mary Alice Mark. Not only is this an important work for the modern age, but a portion of the sales will benefit one of Ms. Mark’s many worthy causes, the MHA’s Living Room program in Poughkeepsie, New York, helping to enhance the lives of the homeless and similarly afflicted.

The title character is actually more of a co-star in Mark’s wondrously-constructed narrative; rather, our main character and protagonist comes in the form of eleven-year-old May. Unusually wise far beyond her years, and borne of a home based completely on a lethal mix of neglect and dysfunction, she emerges to the reader as nothing less than a miracle child; her views on everything from God and religion, to pacifism and the class system, are the absolute embodiment of American intellectual culture in the very early 1960s, sloughing off the sweetness-light-and-perfection of the Eisenhower era while teetering precariously on the brink of an imminent loss of abject innocence. Over the course of thirteen chapters, in which May matures from eleven to fourteen, we watch this girl, always endeavoring to educate and enlighten herself through her cherished library books, collecting bottles daily to pay for her bus fare to and from school, and firmly standing her ground against bullies young and old, in both verbal and physical scrapes, as well as unnecessarily weathering her unconscionable exposure to the darkest sides of life at her tender age. This is a kid who has literally seen it all in her Miami neighborhood, and pulls no punches in spelling it out for those too ignorant to see the reality of any and all situations, at the same time soaking up facts she might have missed along the way. In her creation of May, Ms. Mark may well have unleashed one of modern fiction’s newest potential legendary heroines.

Why then, you may be asking, is the novel entitled Sarah Milbourn’s Mother? Well, after a contretemps involving May’s defense of a little boy beaten and bloodied at a playground water fountain, in which she stands up to the bully at hand (the first such happenstance among many throughout this one-hundred-eighty page opus), she happens to befriend Dianne Milbourn and develop a tremendous kinship with Dianne’s younger sister Sarah, who happens to be deaf since birth but for some reason understands May completely. In the process, May becomes a regular visitor to the Milbourn household and develops an even deeper friendship and camaraderie with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother, whose proper name we never learn. A self -professed “simple country woman” making a living by taking in ironing and supporting four kids, and burning with love and loneliness for the husband who only comes around every so often, Sarah Milbourn’s Mother proves herself a tower of inherent strength nearly every time she opens her mouth, to let forth yet another pearl of wisdom that is so blatantly obvious but so easy not to spot in the everyday whirlwind of existence. In time, she becomes May’s mother, big sister, best friend and unquestionable kindred spirit, and the reader can only delight in watching how that part of the story unfolds.

In addition, Ms. Mark never for a moment wavers in the area of character development where the tale’s other major players are concerned. These include Reverend Kind (who is anything but) and his family, the marvelous sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Connor, a variety of swindlers, teenage prostitutes of both genders as well as their pimp and potential johns, and snooty classmate Eleanor among many others. In point of fact, Ms. Mark has created a world that leaps off the page in a way that is equally comparable with such works as Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, because the imagery is drawn with a similarly masterful stroke of the pen. Granted, the occasional typo abounds and can be slightly jarring once one is so thoroughly drawn into the action, but that’s an obstacle one must simply overlook.

If one had to possibly define the moral of the story, it might be boiled down to two. The first, with no pun intended, is to never judge a book by its cover. The other, and much more clear, is that God is love, love is everywhere and, therefore, God is everywhere. And so, in a just world, both Mary Alice Mark and the characters of May and Sarah Milbourn’s Mother would be making literary history. Until that time, one can do no better than to purchase a copy.

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