Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Father's Touch by Donald D'Haene

American Book Publishing, 1589821122, $22.00

I finished this book weeks ago, and now I am finally sitting down to write the review. The delay in this turnover cannot be entirely attributed to my schedule, I must admit, for book reviews come easy to me. Reviewing Father's Touch, Donald D'Haene's memoir of growing up as a first generation Canadian to Belgian immigrants, has been one of the most difficult things I have had to do. It is not because I disliked the story; as you might suspect, my delay concerns mainly the actual subject matter of the story. This is no ordinary memoir.

True-life stories of sexual abuse at the hands of parents are not very populous in the published world, and there is a part of me that wishes books like Father's Touch and Sue William Silverman's Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (reviewed elsewhere) did not have to be written, that the authors did not have to be subjected to the terror that inspired such work. On the flip side, one must commend D'Haene for his courage and his decision to share his story, if only to serve as a reminder that abuse does happen and that inaction among others does not erase the problem.

Donald D'Haene and his siblings were first generation Canadians, born to Belgian parents who crossed the Atlantic for the promise of a new life in a new world. Yet for the matron D'Haene there was little solace in a marriage where her husband had established control soon after exchanging vows. When Daniel D'Haene decided to join the Jehovah's Witnesses, the family came along with no questions asked. As the family grew, so expanded the senior D'Haene's tyrrany, which would eventually manifest itself in unsavory activities with his children, including one in particular Donald called "The Game."

Throughout much of his childhood, Donald and his siblings were unwilling participants in The Game. It was not until the refusal of the youngest child to be initiated into these secret rituals that Donald's mother learned of the abuse. Subsequent reports to Kingdom's Hall resulted in investigations, disfellowship for Daniel and much harrumphing, but little action beyond that. Never during the course of the abuse and the time thereafter (during which the D'Haenes divorced and Donald moved his mother and siblings elsewhere) was the family informed that legal action could be taken against Daniel D'Haene. When the elder D'Haene finally was accused, the end result for the adult Donald was a botched case and a sentence that hardly befitted the crime of many years of sexual and psychological abuse.

Father's Touch angered me, as well it should have. This is a story written in parts, beginning in the present where Donald and a companion travel back to the places of his childhood. Vivid memories of fellow parishoners - now strangers - and former homes segue vividly into D'Haene's flashback narration, which features somebody D'Haene refers to as "the Other Donald," the numbed self the real Donald left to the mercy of his father to withstand the abuse. Reading Father's Touch, I could not help but wonder how common this phenomenon is among sexually abused youth (Silverman, in her memoir, writes of "Dina," an identity associated with her own experiences).

D'Haene writes honestly, and shows great skill for detail and narrative. Father's Touch is a raw, emotional story of survival, coming to terms with a traumatic past and moving beyond for a better present.

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

The Night the Penningtons Vanished by Marianna Heusler

Larcom Press, 0971437009, $13.00

Money is a difficult thing to come by in the tiny western Massachusetts town of Floral Manor. Young Isabella Ripa yearns to be able to buy sweets and other things her impossible older sister Anna won't take away, yet her job at Aunt Tallulah's antique gift shop yields an almost nonexistent salary. Tallulah, herself strapped for cash, hopes a few smart purchases from an upcoming estate sale will yield profitable sales, and in turn save the business.

Salvation, by Isabella's perception, seems to come in the form of a young woman looking to sell a birdcage and a pair of lovebirds named Mr. and Mrs. Pennington through the shop. A sale would bring in some money, Isabella concedes, but before she can tell her aunt the cage is stolen from the shop, Penningtons and all. What's more, the original owner of the birds is soon found murdered in her hotel.

Sparred on by friends, Isabella reluctantly launches her own investigation, leading her to collect clues through encounters with the homeless and a nightmarish retreat weekend in an allegedly haunted abbey. It isn't long, however, before Isabella's worries switch from building a bank account to preserving her life.

Reading The Night the Penningtons Vanished brought back memories for me, of how much I looked forward to getting my next Nancy Drew mystery and plowing through the pages. Heusler's debut mystery for young adults is a delight to read, a story that doesn't talk down to its intended audience. In teenager Isabella there is a real person with whom young girls can identify, she is a girl dealing with typical pressures - money woes, weight issues, sibling problems - on top of a mystery.

She is not the perfect titian-haired Nancy Drew and she does not have to be. We root for her when she counters sister Anna's abuse by charging her money to borrow things, and we applaud her reasoning when friend Vicki suggests a get rich quick scheme. More than that, we want to turn the pages of Heusler's novel to see what happens next. Heusler would be wise to continue this setting as a series.