AT AGE SEVEN, I WAS TRAPPED in an elevator. Stuck. Forgotten. Desperate.
OK. Kind of.
In truth, my ordeal lasted all of a few minutes and ended swiftly when my companion — no, I wasn't alone, I admit it: there was a girl a few years older in the car with me who managed to force the jammed door open into the lobby.
What I remember most about this otherwise trivial event is that, once it became clear that the elevator door wasn't opening and the car wasn't moving, I had a meltdown; my mind raced from calm to a full-bore "oh-god-oh-god-my-parents-will-never-bother-to-look-for-us-and-we're-going-to-be-found-as-skeletons" crying jag in mere seconds.
There are two lessons to be learned: 1.) thick skin can be a late blooming quality in some, and 2.) the fear of parental abandonment is primal, pervasive, and absolutely relatable to any human.
In Jennifer Richard Jacobson's novel Small as an Elephant, that fear manifests with enormous, visceral, and immediately compelling stakes when a mentally ill single mother abandons her son in a Maine campground. The resulting journey home — complicated by the young protagonist's efforts to find his missing mother — is an engaging trip through the psyche of an almost archetypically resourceful, big-hearted boy with a bulletproof conscience.
At age ten, Jacobson's protagonist, Jack, is very much aware of his mother's manic episodes and has integrated them into his worldview without compromising his love and desire for her attention: "'She's not feeling well,' he'd say. That was as close to the truth as he could come." More than any external complication, this need for good-enough mothering is what drives Jack across the expanse of New England; he won't turn himself in to the authorities because, Jacobsen writes, "he knew they took kids away from bad mothers." But we're given a sense of Jack's mom's character, of what he stands to lose, through things she has given him — a favorite book of poetry intended for grownups, for instance, or through the outgoing message he hears each time he attempts to reach her on his dying phone: "'Becky Martel here — or not here to be exact. Don't leave any old message — wow me!' He waited for the beep and then shouted, 'Where are you?'" Jack's abandonment turns him into an emotional fugitive, someone unwilling to seek help from any of the potentially helpful adults scattered about the novel's landscape. His choice to be on his own out of filial loyalty makes him a heroic figure, even as his actions drive him in and out of otherwise avoidable jeopardy.
It is Jacobson's strong and clear-eyed third person narrative that kept me from becoming exasperated with the boy's refusal to seek or accept help.
Seawall Camping Supplies didn't look like any store Jack had ever visited. It was a cabin — with a porch and everything — and had signs all over it. HOT SHOWERS AND LOBSTER POUND, read one sign. Another said, IT'S COOLER ON THE COAST. He would have felt nervous about walking into the strange place if not for a sign that read, COIN-OP SHOWERS INSIDE STORE. CHANGE AT THE COUNTER. The sign made him laugh, and wished his mother was there to share the joke.
Jack's mother is often spoken of but never truly seen in the narrative, and his commitment to find her without outside help is beyond question, even...read more