Sunday, October 21, 2012

Schroder by Amity Gaige

"Isn't that what childhood is?  An involuntary adventure?  A kidnapping?"  So asks Schroder, the title character in this sometimes sad, sometimes funny, always complicated story about a father who takes his daughter on an extended holiday that's not exactly within the framework of his custody rights.  The trip wasn't premeditated; it just kind of happened. This wasn't the first time that Schroder had an idea that snowballed out of control.  In fact, his whole adult life is a case in point.   You see, as a teen-age immigrant from Germany, Schroder created a new identity for himself, and it ended up sticking. 

The story is written as a letter from Schroder to his ex-wife as he sits in his jail cell awaiting his fate.  "What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance. ....  There are castles of things I want to tell you."  And so he does, starting the story in 1984 with his scholarship application to a boys' camp in New Hampshire under the name of Eric Kennedy.  (When combined with a fictional birth place "near" Hyannis Port, the name gave him a certain cache.)  The application required a personal statement, and Schroder rose to the task.  "Mine was a tale that, by certain lights, was the truest thing I had ever written.  It involved the burdens of history, an early loss of the mother, a baseless sense of personal responsibility, and dauntless hope for the future.  Of course, by other lights--the lights that everyone else uses, including courts of law--my story was pure canard."  

Schroder takes us through his early years, his marriage, and the meetings with the mediator in which he agreed with his to-be-ex's characterizations of his parenting style as "erratic" and "unpredictable" in an effort to find his way back into his wife's good graces.  As he writes, his memories flow seamlessly from the present to the past in his attempt to provide some sort of explanation--not just for taking off with his daughter but for perpetrating the fraud that was his life.

His time with Meadow is a crazy adventure as they head from Lake George to Vermont with the ultimate goal of seeing Mount Washington together.  They swim in their clothes.  They buy silly outfits and eat cookies and rent a little cabin.  Despite the fact that Meadow is only six years old, they have wonderful, thoughtful conversations.  The truth is, it's a special time.   When talking with a mother who is out with her family, she comments on what a beautiful day it is.  "My problem is, when it's this pretty, I just want to keep it.  I just want to box it up and keep it and have it last forever."  Schroder responds, "You know where you keep a day like this?  You keep it in your heart.  That's the box you keep it in."

 After they've been on the road a few days, he sees a story on the news that characterizes him as a disgruntled father who's abducted his daughter.   Their already complicated situation keeps getting more difficult, and Schroder decides to tell daughter the truth about his past as they start making their way home.  He tells her about what it was like being a German boy in an Irish-American suburb of Boston.  He tells her about falling in love with her mother.  He tells her about his father, who never acclimated to the loss of his wife and his life in a foreign country.  Ultimately, of course, Schroder is captured and Meadow is taken from him.   And so we come to the end of his letter, with his ultimate explanation of why he made the choices that he made when he was just a child himself.  "I guess I needed a life that I could revise.  If I had just accepted the one life, my first life, I would have honored its limits.  I would have lived quietly, hardly even dreaming.  I would have tried to convince myself that a sad and quiet life is adequate.  Instead, I dreamt.  I decorated entire rooms of my past with the pleasures I salvaged elsewhere....I no longer had to be half alive.  A partial suicide like my father."

While Schroder isn't on my list of favorite reads, there was something about this book that I really liked.  Schroder and Meadow's relationship is quite sweet, and you can see why he'd go to great lengths not to lose that connection.  And who among us wouldn't like to revise at least some part of our history to make it more consistent with our vision of ourselves?   Interested readers can find Schroder in their local bookstores next February.    Score another good read from my stash of galleys from the Book Expo.  

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