Lou Ann Campbell is an extremely sympathetic character. She’s the eleven-year-old narrator of Sharon Wyse’s debut novel The Box Children.
“What you are reading is my diary,” Lou Ann writes. Lou Ann’s diary is a secret she keeps from her Mother, Father and older brother, Will. She lives with her family on a farm in rural Texas and it is her diary that acts as her confessor, confidante, and friend.
Despite the novel’s pastoral setting: “I can put my eyes just to the top of the wheat and see the world stretch out flat to the sky,” Lou Ann says, this is a coming of age novel that is, at its core, a novel about abuse and neglect.
Lou Ann’s parents are, for the most part, reprehensible. Her mother walks a fine line between disinterest and cruelty and her father is a handsome philanderer. Even the relationship between Lou Ann and her brother disintegrates (after Lou Ann rats him out over a dirty song he’s sung to her) and that leaves Lou Ann pretty much on her own.
‘The Box Children’ of the novel’s title refers to the five babies Lou Ann’s mother has lost due to miscarriage or still birth. When the novel opens, we learn that she is pregnant again. Instead of making Mother a sympathetic character, she is abhorrent. One story of how she toilet trains babies in the community is paraticularly disturbing. Additionally, it is heart-wrenching to see how Lou Ann strives to be good for her mother, to earn her love, and yet never quite manages.
The Box Children is the story of a dysfunctional family but it is not without humour or hope. Lou Ann is a smart girl with a talent for music and a kind soul and one suspects that, eventually, she’ll leave the farm and go on to great things.
This is a lovely book.