My Sunshine Away by M.O.Walsh
In My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh mingles a couple of old standbys: a tale of obsessive love and its perils, and a whodunit. After he stirs in an outwardly idyllic middle-class Baton Rouge neighborhood, Walsh serves up a modern twist on the Southern Gothic tradition.
Our unnamed narrator relates the story of a pivotal year in his young life from the perspective of adulthood, yet has lost none of his pre-teen gift for angst, or his ability to call up the piercing pain and consumptive awkwardness only those years can bring.Our hero, though, has more to contend with in his wonder years than acne and jangly limbs. His parents break up, his family endures unspeakable tragedy, his mother seems to spend whole years of her life crying.
None of this, however, can knock from the forefront of his prepubescent brain his obsession with Lindy Simpson. At 15, in the summer of 1989, Lindy is what every girl wants to be and what every boy wants: she’s beautiful, smart, she can outrun every boy in the neighborhood. She’s talented and loved, fearless and confident beyond her years pedaling around her Woodland Hills subdivision on her banana-seated Schwinn.
But someone, it turns out, wants Lindy too much. And one night, as she bikes home from track practice, that someone takes her, forcefully, on a sidewalk as, “a squadron of mosquitoes” whine in the night and her neighbors sit down to dinner inside their homes.
Lindy’s rape changes everything. Lindy, morphs from the girl everyone liked to the girl who tries on new selves, hoping to find one that can make her stand herself. And, it reveals that, despite all the neighborly bonhomie, the cookouts and kids racing go-carts and the well-kept lawns, there is no shortage of suspects on Piney Creek Road.
Including, our narrator forthrightly tells us, himself. His love for Lindy has taken him down some pretty disquieting paths, paths that make even his own mother start to wonder just how disturbed he is. Then there’s the dirty old man down the street, and the neighborhood’s 1980s version of Boo Radley. And why does that creepy couple take in all those damaged foster kids, anyway?
Walsh wanders off on tangents occasionally — an entire chapter, with chip firmly on shoulder — about the differences between New Orleans and Baton Rouge — which might have been more forgivable if his narrator were still a teenager. Peripheral characters come and go, and the shuffling is all the more irksome because not all of these characters are fully realized enough to make them stick in readers’ minds.
What keeps us turning pages is only partly the yearning to learn who did it. It’s also the way Walsh makes us root for the kid narrator, warts and all, and makes feel life on Piney Creek Road, with all its hidden heartbreaks, and its sticky climate: “…Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a hot place. Even the fall of night offers no comfort. There are no breezes sweeping off the dark servitudes and marshes, no cooling rains. Instead, the rain that falls here survives only to boil on the pavement, to steam up your glasses, to burden you.”
Ultimately, what Walsh accomplishes is to remind us that what happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood. We carry it around like schoolbooks in our backpacks until we’re permanently stooped from the burden.