Remember those humiliating moments during childhood and adolescence when making a public mistake? Or when someone outside the family has been subjected to the dorkiness that is your parents? If so, you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to be Darla McKendrick, who is easily embarrassed by her father’s cliches and suffered a major humiliation because of a lie told to her by Aunt Didi when she first learned of an aunt she’d never met — Rebecca.
As Squalor, New Mexico opens, nine-year-old Darla overhears a conversation between her mother and Aunt Didi about her mysterious Aunt Rebecca, who they only discussed when they thought no one else was listening. This time what captured Darla’s attention was a word she didn’t understand because Aunt Didi described Rebecca as living in squalor, so just as all children do, Darla asked what squalor meant. As her mother hemmed and hawed, Aunt Didi jumped in to answer. “It’s a town in New Mexico, Darla. It’s an Indian name.” Darla had more questions about the tidbits she’d overheard, but the additional questions were squashed and she was sent to finish some homework. But, of course, Darla couldn’t let it go, so a couple weeks later, when having dinner with the Alexanders (Aunt Didi’s family) Darla questioned why they couldn’t visit Aunt Rebecca, and Uncle George took on the answer.
“Darla, listen to me,” Uncle George barked. “We don’t see your aunt Rebecca because, well, as your aunt Didi says, she lives in Squalor, and knowing Rebecca, you can be damn sure there’s no way she’ll ever get out. That’s it now!”
“She could screw her way out!” I said helpfully.
Which of course caused a family uproar as Darla had only repeated the words Aunt Didi said. And for awhile, that was it, even though Darla didn’t forget about the mysterious aunt who seemed to make her parents edgy every time her name was mentioned. That is until Darla was in the seventh grade, and her enemy Amy Ludwig, whom Darla referred to as Lughead, smugly answered the question of what cities were in New Mexico, but Darla knew she could top her. “I have an aunt who lives in Squalor!” I said proudly, looking right into the Lughead’s eyes. Darla was mortified when she found out that, as her teacher put it, “…you’ll find squalor in the dictionary, not on the map.”
Lisette Brodey takes us on a journey into a family where secrets abound and cause untold pain as Darla is growing up because there are so many things which are kept a secret and she feels she is being blamed for Rebecca’s mistakes instead of her own. And no matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to get away from the shadow that Rebecca still cast in their lives — even when no one had heard from her or seen her since before Darla was born. Ultimately, Darla and her three cousins, April, May, and June try to piece together the past to help unlock the present.
I’ll be honest, when I saw the number of pages listed for the book, my eyes opened a bit as it would be on the long side for a young adult novel. I do know that the novel originally was not intended as a young adult, but does fit in the young adult mold, although can be enjoyed by all ages from young adult on up. So, in a way, I’m glad I read the book on my Kindle because with a Kindle you simply keep on turning the pages, and there isn’t the physical reminder of the size of the book (unless you watch the little scroll bar at the bottom). This enabled me to read for the pleasure of it, and I found the story kept pulling me along to the point where I didn’t want to stop reading. I wanted to find out exactly what happened in the past and why they allowed the past to cast such a long and all-encompassing shadow over their lives.
Brodey does a masterful job of putting us in the mind of Darla McKendrick and we feel her pain as she is growing and maturing into a young woman. Throughout the book are wonderful characters to meet, such as the detestable Uncle Martin and his latest floozy, Maude. By the time you’re done reading Squalor, New Mexico, you’ll feel as if you are a member of the McKendrick’s extended family, who for all their flaws, really do love one another. Definitely a book to check out.
Originally reviewed for the LL Book Review