Booktrope, January 27, 2016.
In 1970s rural Missouri, Pearl’s family is poor, living off subsistence farming and her father’s hunting trips. The surrounding land formerly belonged to the Osage people, but they have been run off the land by agriculture and development. Pearl is thirteen-years-old, helping her mother in the vegetable garden, when she experiences her first vision – an Osage woman comes to her, bringing visions of the earth’s destruction through ecological disaster. The vision is overwhelming for young Pearl, but it is terrifying for her mother – she believes that Pearl will not be able to survive in a difficult world because she feels so much, so strongly. Her reaction is to withdraw emotionally. She does not hug her daughter, because “it isn’t done.”
Pearl feels everything deeper than most people, and she expresses these feelings with a deep, visceral connection to the earth. She has visions of the Osage people, but they really represent a sense of empathy for all living things, including the land around her. Pearl soon learns that her “mad” Aunt Nadine had the same gift – before she was sent for electroshock treatment at the nearby mental asylum. Suffering abuse from her father and emotional coldness from her mother, Pearl escapes the farm to find her aunt, and ends up following a trail to her sister Meghan, who went missing years before.
Earth is a unique coming of age story, in which Pearl must discover her own sense of self in a family – and in a world – that doesn’t accept her. She lives with many kinds of abuse and neglect, yet she still feels a great love for her family. Her older sister, Meghan, has become a prostitute and a drug addict. Pearl is much younger, yet she acts as mother to Meghan, protecting her while putting herself at risk. This is a novel about the importance of the natural world, but it also shows the dark side of humanity, and the many dangers that people present to each other.
Allen’s writing is lyrical, with odd, onomatopoeic descriptors. She has an illogical yet evocative way of describing simple moments and actions that truly bring them to life. The style is a sort of magic realism, reminiscent of Alice Hoffman’s novels. In contrast, some of the descriptions of nature become heavy-handed, and the author clearly has an environmentalist agenda – I happen to agree with it, but sometimes it seemed a bit forced. More significantly, she uses Pearl to show the importance of sharing stories within a family so that we can know who we are and where we came from. Pearl is set adrift without familial roots, and she calls it a “poverty of story.”
Pearl tries to use her Catholic upbringing to understand the indigenous spirituality that comes to her in her visions – she attends a Catholic school and invokes Joan of Arc and Jesus to help her understand her own situation. Later, she meets a nun who tries to help her by comparing her to St. Theresa and her “ecstasies”, but Pearl just becomes more confused about her role in the spiritual world.
Although Pearl is a teenager, this is not a young adult novel. There is a high level of mental and emotional depth to her feelings – it is more like she is using adult wisdom to tell the story of her childhood. As Pearl discovers her family’s story, she still manages to rewrite her own in a more positive way. Her relatives have experienced a vicious cycle of abuse and neglect, and she refuses to repeat it. Her story is sometimes uncomfortable, but always truthful. The novel is awkward in parts, but overall it is beautiful and heartfelt. It is also the first in a series, which I will continue to read in order to find out the rest of Pearl’s story.
I received this novel from Booktrope and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.