Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Navigating a Childhood Sorrow

Review by Colleen Mondor

The Day My Mother Left.
James Prosek.
Simon & Schuster. 2007. 292 pp.
ISBN 1-4169-0770-X.

I have enjoyed James Prosek's nonfiction on fishing for years and particularly find The Compleat Angler and Fly-Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel to be some of the more impressive titles written on the hobby. I was surprised though when I read that he had written a young adult novel, The Day My Mother Left. This story about a boy, nine-year-old Jeremy, whose mother abandons the family one day for another man, is quite poignant and gripping but I'm not sold on it truly being a book for young adults (let alone middle grade readers). The content is entirely appropriate (no sex/violence/language concerns at all here), but the tip-off that maybe it was better suited for adults comes in the prominent blurbs from Harold Bloom and Tom Brokaw. "A deeply moving novel by one of our country's most gifted writers," contributes Bloom on the front cover and yet when I read that my first thought was to wonder if Bloom had ever before recommended a young adult book. Would it matter to the average eleven-year-old what he thinks of Prosek's ability? I honestly don't think so and with that thought in mind I read Day and decided that as thoughtful and well-written as this book is, it's in very real danger of missing it's audience.

To be blunt, I don't think The Day My Mother Left is really meant to be read by kids. I think this book is for adults and if it can find its way to those mature readers then they will relish it for the nice little gem that it is. The protagonist is definitely a child, but the more I read from Jeremy's perspective the more it seemed like the adult Jeremy was remembering a difficult period in his childhood through this narrative. I'm not sure if that was Prosek's intent but it is what I was left with as a reader. Because of that, the book seems a bit awkward for, say, a ten-year old. But conversely, it is perfect for the average thirty-something.

As the story begins, Jeremy is your standard kid with a fairly decent older sister and two parents in the dying days of a marriage. His mother is not happy, his father is frustrated and when mom decides to leave it is only Jeremy who seems truly surprised. (Children do still believe in "happily ever after," of course.) To make matters much worse it soon becomes apparent that his mother has left for the father of Jeremy's arch enemy, a boy who delights in bullying him at every turn. She also seems to be quite content to no longer have contact with her son. In fact, it is three years before Jeremy speaks to his mother again. That period makes up the bulk of the book's narrative and shows Jeremy moving from anger and frustration to a resolute sort of acceptance. But he never stops missing his mom, and he never understands why when she left, she had to take his book of bird drawings along with her.

The bird book is a sort of foundation for the new life Jeremy forms with his father and sister. He resolves to make another book to replace the first and it is while working on those pictures that he finds a small degree of peace. The book is only part of this new world however; his father starts dating a woman who soon enough has moved into their house, his sister spends a lot of time with friends, and Jeremy often visits his aunt and uncle, who live in a more rural environment, through which he further connects with nature. All of these things combine to move Jeremy past missing his mother so very much, but still he needs her—he needs to know why she left, and it is only when he is able to have that necessary conversation with her that he truly begins to understand who she is, and who he must become.

The Day My Mother Left is a very touching story, a sweet story, that will make readers recall their own childhoods and those first moments when they recognized their parents as people who had their own demons and crosses to bear. Young adults could certainly take something meaningful away from reading it, and Prosek's lovely bird drawings will doubtless be much appreciated by nature-loving teens, but really and truly I think it is adults who will get the most out of it. I hope they find their way to this story, because it's one that many will not want to miss.


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