Published August 2019 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review
Following the death of their mother from a botched backwoods abortion, the McAlister daughters have to cope with the ripple effect of this tragedy as they come of age in 1950s Mississippi and then grow up to face their own impossible choices—an unforgettable, beautiful novel that is threaded throughout with the stories of mothers and daughters in pre-Roe versus Wade America.
Life heads down back alleys, takes sharp left turns. Then, one fine day it jumps the track and crashes.”
In the fall of 1957, Olivia McAlister is living in Opelika, Mississippi, caring for her two girls, June and Grace, and her husband, Holly. She dreams of living a much larger life—seeing the world and returning to her wartime job at a landing boat factory in New Orleans. As she watches over the birds in her yard, Olivia feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird blown off course.
When Olivia becomes pregnant again, she makes a fateful decision, compelling Grace, June, and Holly to cope in different ways. While their father digs up the backyard to build a bomb shelter, desperate to protect his family, Olivia’s spinster sister tries to take them all under her wing. But the impact of Olivia’s decision reverberates throughout Grace’s and June’s lives. Grace, caught up in an unconventional love affair, becomes one of the “girls who went away” to have a baby in secret. June, guilt-ridden for her part in exposing Grace’s pregnancy, eventually makes an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker in a New Orleans orphanage, is drastically impacted by Grace’s choices.
As the years go by, their lives intersect in ways that reflect the unpredictable nature of bird flight that lands in accidental locations—and the consolations of imperfect return.
I've been reading a lot lately - books for review, library books that have become available and need to get read quickly. It's meant I'm not always reading the book that I would have chosen for the reading mood I'm in at that moment. Truthfully, I'm not even always sure what I'm in the mood to read. For example, I didn't know, when I picked up The Accidentals that I was in the mood for a beautifully written book about family that spans decades and explores the ripple effect of our choices. She vividly describes the birds, the land, the food and drink, the clothing - it's all part of a beautiful picture. More importantly, Gwin does a marvelous job of helping readers feel her characters anger, their guilt, and their pain.
In the time before Roe v. Wade, three unwanted pregnancies result in three different choices and three very different outcomes. Gwin doesn't make any judgments about her characters choices; she seems to want readers to understand that any choice is a tough choice when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Olivia had to be willing to risk her life, Grace was forced to give up her daughter, and June felt forced into marriage - all choices they felt they had to make because of the morals and laws of that time.
Speaking of the morals and laws of the time, Gwin loads up her story with references that put readers squarely into the decades in which the book takes place. World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the space race, the Challenger accident, Hurricane Katrina, and Barack Obama's first bid for the presidency help readers keep track of when the book is taking place; Gwin tends to skip forward in time, sometimes taking great leaps, and those references helped me keep track of the ages the sisters.
She also touches on a lot of subjects in the book: homosexuality, abortion, teen pregnancy, rape, adoption, racism, love, redemption, forgiveness, family, racism, "passing," mental illness, Alzheimer's, cancer, animal abuse, pedophilia, rights of felons to vote, and gender inequality. Sound like a lot? It is and, to be honest, Gwin might have been better served by cutting back on some of it. Occasionally it felt forced, like when Ed Mae can vote for the first time just as the first black man is running for president. Sometimes I wasn't sure it was Gwin's place to try to tell the story. I appreciated that she was trying to weave in a story about how unfair life was for blacks in the south in the second half of the last century; but I wasn't sure it was her story to tell.
One reviewer on Goodreads wrote "much like the birds - the "accidentals" that lose their way - so, too, does the story." I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but the last quarter of the book feels like it is racing along to get to the finale. And it felt a little jarring that Gwin chose to let Ed Mae's story be the final chapter since the book was not her story. That being said, despite a need for some suspension of disbelief, I did like the way the story lines came together at the end of the book and that fact that Gwin left readers to come to their own conclusions about what might have come next.
Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for giving me the right book at the right time, a book about these "accidentals." For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour.
Minrose Gwin is the author of The Queen of Palmyra, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award, and the memoir Wishing for Snow, cited by Booklist as “eloquent” and “lyrical”—“a real life story we all need to know.” She has written four scholarly books and coedited The Literature of the American South. She grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, hearing stories of the Tupelo tornado of 1936. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Find out more about Minrose at her website. The book can be found at HarperCollins.