My 10 year old tossed Baby by Patricia MacLachlan at the end of her bed last night. “That was sad” was her only comment.
Having an attraction to “sad” books, I immediately grabbed it and began reading it while putting my toddler to sleep. I stayed there until I finished. When I finished my side was numb and I had tears running down my face. What a beautiful book.
Patricia MacLachlan has a rare gift among storytellers. She writes stories poetically. I don’t mean she uses poetic phrases, as so many good authors do, but she composes poetically. She turns simple words, that could be read by any second grader, and makes a story that reads like one big poem. Each word is savored, never wasted. The wonderful thing is that readers none too fond of poetry would never have guessed that they just read a poem disguised as a story.
Baby (1993, Delacorte Press) might be my favorite among her stories. The author is probably best known for Sarah, Plain and Tall. Even non-readers may be familiar with the Hallmark movie version of the story. That book, although poetically written, translates well into a dramatic reproduction. Baby would not work so well.
Baby is about words and the power of words and the destruction in lives when words are withheld. Like a good layer cake, it is also about loss, pain, cycles, giving, and healing.
Twelve-year-old Larkin lives with her mom and dad on an island year round. The story opens at the end of summer, as the last summer ferry carries the tourists away until the next summer. One little island “guest” is left behind at Larkin’s home. An almost year old baby, Sophie, has been left by her mother with a note attached telling the family that “I will come back for her one day.” Sophie becomes the catalyst which brings about healing in Larkin’s family.
As the family takes in Sophie, they uncover the pain surrounding the loss of Larkin’s newborn brother, “Baby,” six months prior. Larkin’s parents never talk about him, never named him, and through their silence have isolated each other from themselves and from their daughter. The story unfolds beautifully as Larkin’s family cycles through fear of love, love for Sophie, then once again has to face loss again, when Sophie’s mother returns in the spring to claim her. During the story, Larkin discovers poetry and how words are “wondrous” and powerful, and through this power Larkin and her family find their way back from loss and pain.
Baby speaks powerfully to foster care, too. Larkin’s grandmother, with foresight, has the following conversation with Larkin:
“This is not meant to be easy,” she said, “It is a very important thing to do, for Sophie and especially for your mother and father. But it will not be easy. Do you understand?”
I understood. I did. I knew that what she meant was what Papa had said. Sophie was not ours. Someday she would go away. Another thing to miss.
“Why is it important?” I asked her…
“It is important, Larkin, because we are giving Sophie something to take away with her when she goes.”
“What?” asked Lalo [Larkin’s friend]. “What will she take with her?”
“Us,” said Byrd firmly.
“And what will we have when she’s gone?” I asked .
Byrd is silent. It takes the rest of the book for Larkin to have her answer.
I had a wonderful conversation this morning with my daughter about the book and the power of words. We were reminded of how God spoke world into being and how Jesus is called the Word made flesh. Words are ordained by our Creator to hold power…power to heal and soothe, and also power to hurt. MacLachlin’s book addresses how the absence of words can be just as harmful as the ill-used word and what blessings may flow when words are used to heal.