Jars line my cellar shelves. Some are filled with fists of yellow-veined tomatoes. Others hold small onions and chopped leeks, white pearls floating in an opaque sea. Sometimes the light falls on a jar of boiled quail or the slick, dark meat of a rabbit. There are unexpected moments when I see the slit of an infant’s mouth, or the curl of a tiny fist behind the glass, and I run up the steps, back into the open light of sky. I gasp for air and tell myself the past is a distant thing, no longer able to reach me or hurt me. And yet, at times, it seems the past will always send its long thin fingers toward me, reminding me of all I want to forget. -From Tomato Girl, prologue-
Jayne Pupek’s debut novel, Tomato Girl, is not a story for the faint of heart…nor is it one which the reader will likely soon forget.
Set in the South, the book is narrated from the innocent point of view of eleven year old Ellie Sanders who is forced to grow up far too early. Ellie has learned to depend upon her father Rupert to guide her through the confusing maze of her mother’s mental illness. But when Ellie’s mother has an accident and Rupert introduces Tess (a girl who delivers tomatoes to the general store where Rupert works) to “help out” at home … everything changes.
Through Ellie’s eyes the reader meets the memorable characters who people the novel: Mary Roberts (Ellie’s precocious and practical best friend), Clara and Jericho (the black couple with love to spare), Sheriff Rhodes, Miss Wilder (Ella’s lesbian teacher who tries to help), the frightening Mason Reed, young Tess (who threatens the security of Ellie’s family), Rupert (who flounders in his ability to provide emotionally to Ellie), Julia (Ellie’s very ill mother), and Baby Tom. Through Ellie the reader experiences the pain of loss, and the terror of living with a mentally ill parent.
This is a tough book to read. It is raw and far too real. But it is also beautifully written. Pupek has captured Ellie’s character perfectly – a young girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, but who is still wrapped in the innocence of childhood. Pupek never veers from Ellie’s point of view, skillfully revealing the workings of adult motivation through the eyes of a child.
There will be readers who will find this book too disturbing to read. Some scenes are graphic, disheartening, and completely unforgettable. Tomato Girl is a novel which will not go away once the final page has been turned. Pupek has created a character who like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Ruth Ann in Bastard Out of Carolina will tug on the reader’s heart and demand to be heard.