As I read through the ten novel openings featured in this issue of Embark, I kept coming back to the concepts of responsibility and obligation: the joys and tragedies of taking care of others, the constraints and reassurance of being in someone else’s care, and the murky, often challenging question of who or what is the ultimate cause of our actions. Each of this issue’s immersive and thought-provoking openings, though they were chosen without reference to each other, shed fascinating light on these complex themes.
In Nancy Foley’s novel LA RANA, two American sisters, Julia and Alice, arrive in Baja California with Alice’s newborn baby. The next morning Julia discovers that Alice has disappeared and left her in charge of the baby, in a beachfront cabin near a tiny village. Julia’s complex feelings about her sister, her niece, and herself, as she struggles to survive in this exile, vividly demonstrate the intricacies of obligation. Melodie J. Rodgers, in her novel of stories, KEEPING HOUSE, writes from the child’s point of view in her opening tale: young Dorothy, her mother dead and her father in prison, is a dark-skinned Black girl living with a light-skinned Black family, and they never allow her to forget that difference, nor the obligations she owes to them. Dorothy must find what friends she can and form her own values in the midst of her isolation.
Isolation can be even more terrifying for children when they are taken away from the home they know: fourteen-year-old Wanda, the protagonist of THE COLOUR OF THE ROAD by Sue Rabbitt Roff, is separated from her mother in Britain and sent to Australia in the 1950s, to work as a maid for a troubled couple on a remote sheep farm. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she finds herself without allies and confronted by the imminent responsibility of being a mother herself. Wanda, like all children, will eventually grow up and gain more power over her life, but the protagonist of S-1-D-0, a speculative novel by Jordan M. Griffin, has no such promise to fall back on: as an “asset,” human in soul, mind, and appearance but created artificially, Sid struggles to find personal freedom and genuine relationships in a world that has granted her no rights, yet relies on her as the latest, most expensive development in dangerous weapons.
In BEHOLD THE BIRD IN FLIGHT, a historical novel by Terri Lewis set in medieval France, eleven-year-old Isabelle faces similar constraints, but for more reassuring reasons: her loving parents won’t let her out of the castle where she lives, due to rumors that she is a witch. Though this young girl will eventually marry King John of England, at the start of her story she is simply looking over the walls, yearning for freedom, while her parents arrange for her escape to a safer region. The modern-day protagonist of THE ABSENCE OF COLOR, by Heather McClean, knows with painful intensity the fears of parenthood, and after her son is murdered by Chicago police officers, his only crime being a Black man, Cecile must grapple with the agony of being a bereaved mother. As she drowns in grief, she ponders the irreplaceable happiness and intolerable dangers that parents experience—and the way those dangers are compounded for people of color.
Scott Lipanovich, in THE LOST COAST, delves into other kinds of power imbalances: his protagonist, Jeff Taylor, after being asked for a favor by his ex-boss only days after leaving his job, finds himself reluctantly babysitting a hungover California state senator guilty of a fatal hit-and-run, who seems at first glance to be a perfect representative of a corrupt governmental system. But as Jeff learns more about the accident, he starts wondering what really happened and takes on a new responsibility: to find the truth. M. D. Rigg, in VOICES OF THE ELYSIAN FIELDS, approaches lethal crime from the point of view of the police: when a New Orleans coroner is killed, his replacement, working with an eclectic array of colleagues in the force, must delve deep into the muddy waters of the city’s systemic injustice to find out how he died, and why others have been murdered in exactly the same way.
In THE RELUCTANT REBEL, Swapna Chakrabarti explores the complexities of power on a larger scale, describing the British occupation of India through the eyes of a young Indian woman named Rama in 1919, whose greatest ambition is to become an English gentlewoman. Her beloved brother, however, reviles the colonists, and Rama’s own awakening to the tyranny of colonialism will be thorough and brutal. C. William Smith also examines responsibility on a grand scale, focusing on the ownership of North American land over centuries in TWENTYMILE. The novel’s protagonist, Tsula Walker, works as an agent for the National Park Service’s investigative branch, tackling crimes and clashing interests from the Everglades to the Great Smoky Mountains, while always remembering the lessons of her Cherokee upbringing.
Wide-ranging in setting, theme, style, and character, these ten openings have expanded my world and introduced me to new ideas. I hope you find them as thrilling and evocative as I did!
— Ursula DeYoung, Founding Editor
Table of Contents
THE RELUCTANT REBEL – Swapna Chakrabarti
LA RANA – Nancy Foley
S-1-D-0 – Jordan M. Griffin
BEHOLD THE BIRD IN FLIGHT – Terri Lewis
THE LOST COAST – Scott Lipanovich
THE ABSENCE OF COLOR – Heather McClean
VOICES OF THE ELYSIAN FIELDS – M. D. Rigg
KEEPING HOUSE – Melodie J. Rodgers
THE COLOUR OF THE ROAD – Sue Rabbitt Roff
TWENTYMILE – C. Matthew Smith