Review by Dana Porreca
A New York City transplant returning to her native Iowa recounts her mother’s last days. Snapshots of Iowa farm life are offered in the form of nostalgic musings and rich description. Stephanie Dickinson’s newest novel is a family history and biography of her mother, Florence, as much as it is her own memoir. Tales from Dickinson’s own life are told in the shadow of her mother’s last days, in vivid, stream-of-consciousness description that engages the senses as well as the intellect. This stream-of-consciousness can be seen in her description of Iowan life and landscape as well as anecdotes of an idyllic yet yearning life on the farm. We can feel her rich life through her use of language from the first chapter, “A gown so lovely it makes the insects go silent, like when the sun passes behind a cloud,” to her last. Her diction wraps readers in a cloud of nostalgic intoxication, tastes, textures, smells not even spared, “The Blue Kettle Cafe, where the cuisine features sweet-sour aqua pickle relish, Jell-O marshmallow salad that tastes like a wound, bacon bits, and croutons.”
Such positive imagery is in stark contrast with the frame story of Dickinson’s lucid, real-time divulgence of her mother’s demise into dementia. While Dickinson’s pastoral portrait of her childhood draws on old photographs, journals, letters, and other tangible items, her description of her time spent with her “actively dying” mother is the narrative (interrupted by flashbacks and musings brought on by her mother’s actions or possessions) of her mother’s hospice stay, death, and subsequent burial and division of her things. Dickinson writes, “The sun is pitched dizzily overhead as we get to the final box of Florence’s possessions.” Dickinson’s vivid description reveals layers of emotion and events. The seemingly one-sided blossoming of their mother-daughter relationship is drenched in grief as well as fulfillment, “The more vulnerable my mother became, the better our relationship.” The grief of her mother’s “active dying” is balanced out by stories of life on the farm and adolescent rebellion.
Dickinson’s memoir leaves the reader fulfilled, much like her end theme. Her prose is cathartic, drawing out laughs, sighs, and even tears at times. Every stage of life is represented; be prepared to experience them all with Girl Behind the Door.
You can find the book here: http://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781495106088/girl-behind-the-door.aspx
Dana Porreca is an avid reader, English teacher and writer living in New Jersey.