Susan Henderson’s debut novel Up From the Blue (Harper Collins, 2010) is one of those stories that stays with you for a very long time – haunting and heartbreaking, compassionate and hopeful. As a reader of Henderson’s blog, Lit Park, I’d looked forward to reading this book for a long time and followed her progress as she wrestled with revisions. I admired her determination to finish her book and get it published so that the story she’d worked on so hard and long reached readers. That story of persistence in the writing process and publication is in itself triumphant. Best of all, the finished novel proved to be a compelling and beautifully written story – one that made it difficult to put the book down before reaching the end.
The main character, eight-year-old Tillie Harris, shows us the world she’s trying to navigate and understand. It’s a place far too complicated with adult problems, which Tillie obstinately tries to make sense of despite the fact that they are beyond what a child is capable of understanding. She witnesses the tides of her mother’s mental illness, watching her drift away on waves of depression and come back to her in a flood of mania. Seeing a loved one struggle to stay afloat during a depressive episode can be confusing and frustrating, even for an adult. But for a child, especially an imaginative one like Tillie, distinguishing reality from fantasy can be problematic. Sometimes the truth might be easier for a child to handle than the omissions and half-truths that are told to protect her – the knowing easier than not knowing.
In the wake of her mother’s disappearance when the family moves to Washington, D.C., Tillie tries to find out what happened to her. Since the story is from Tillie’s point of view, the reader is unsure whether to trust her perceptions. Is she caught up in the magical thinking of a child? Is she seeing what’s truly happening?
There are many layers to Up From the Blue. Primarily set in 1975 when Tillie was a child and at a time when traditional family roles were changing, the novel is framed by the story of the adult Tillie in the early 1990s as she’s about to give birth to her first baby. It’s a story of being uprooted and disconnected as the family moves from military base to military base with the father’s career, of detachment and isolation, of motherhood, of feminism, of family secrets, of longing for stability, of the stigma and shame of mental illness, and of forgiveness and healing.
I caught Susan Henderson’s appearance on September 29th at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh (which has sadly closed), where I met her in person for the first time. She graciously answered lots of questions from the audience at the end of her reading about the writing of the book. For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to catch one of Henderson’s book tour appearances, here are some great interviews with her online:
• “Susan Henderson Talks About Up From the Blue,” interview by Caroline Leavitt at Carolineleavittville
• “Susan Henderson: Trust Your (re)Vision,” interview by Jordan Rosenfeld at Make a Scene
• “Interview with Susan Henderson, Author of Up From the Blue: Tale of manic depressive mother and mystery around her disappearance,” interview by Jennifer Haupt at Psychology Today