Awhile back, I was seeing this book everywhere throughout the book blogosphere, and was thrilled when I saw it as an audio book at the library. I promptly put it in my CD player and within a half hour, pressed "stop."
Because this was a story I had to read, not listen to.
Tomato Girl is the story of 11-year old Ellie Sanders as she struggles singlehandedly to hold her family together through the dark roller-coaster ride of dysfunction that is life with her parents.
Let's start with them, shall we? Her mother Julia is mentally ill. (The exact diagnosis isn't stated, and I'm certainly not an expert on such matters, but she appears to be perhaps bipolar or schizophrenic.) A fall down the steps (an incident Ellie blames on herself) spirals Julia into a chasm of erratic and disturbing behavior. Because of her illness, and her grief over losing a baby, she places Ellie in situations no child (or adult, for that matter) should ever have to be in. Just when she needs her mother the most, Ellie embarks on the cusp of adolescence walking a tightrope between loving her mother, wanting to make her better, and being frightened (understandably) of her actions.
"My eyes stung, but hard blinks kept me from crying. Yes, I knew what it was like to be scared. I felt scared all the time. My whole life I'd been afraid of Mama's dark places taking her for good, scared that those same places might live inside me. Now I feared that Tess would take away my father, and my mother might grow so sad I wouldn't know how to make her smile again. But I didn't owe Tess an answer. She'd taken too much. I wouldn't give her anything else. Sometimes you have to hold onto what you have, even if the only thing left is fear."
Ellie's father's response to his wife's deterioriating mental state is resignation. At his emotional limits, Rupert turns to Tess, the teenage "tomato girl" who supplies his general store with fresh produce. Tess is the epitome of young and fresh; she sells Avon and allows Ellie to try on lipstick and teaches her about kissing. Tess moves into the Sanders' home, under the auspices of helping out as Julia recuperates, but brings her own quagmire of issues and complicating the household even more.
For most of its 298 pages, Tomato Girl is a difficult read. It's incomprehensible to imagine an 11 year old being subject to the situations that Ellie must endure because of her parents' actions. But, as dark as the subject matter is, Tomato Girl is an important novel.
Although Tomato Girl is set in the late 1960s, the issues of parental neglect, infidelity, abuse, etc. are still incredibly prevalent today. And because of that, it is important for kids to know that there are people in their world (as in Ellie's) who do care about them - and they might even be the type of people (also as in Ellie's life), who are considered to be "different" or "strange" because of their sexual orientation or the color of their skin.
Tomato Girl has been aptly compared to Kaye Gibbons' novel Ellen Foster (which I also loved), and even though this is a work of fiction, I found myself comparing this in parts to The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' memoir.
Author Jayne Pupek has a social work background, and while reading this, I was wondering if any real-life instances provided inspiration for the characters and the plot of the novel (and if that is the case, it becomes even more of a sadder book.)
I know that a 40-year old suburban mom of two like myself is not necessarily the target audience, but regardless, I thought this was incredibly well-written, with memorable characters and solid pacing throughout. I highly recommend this book, for young adults and up, and I'm looking forward to reading more by Jayne Pupek in the future ...
... perhaps, say, maybe a Tomato Girl sequel?
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