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"How to Survive a Natural Disaster" by Margaret Hawkins

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“How to Survive a Natural Disaster” recounts the grim story of a family so dysfunctional it barely merits the name. Craig feels he was tricked into marrying Roxanne, a religious woman with a daughter from a previous marriage. She becomes pregnant but loses the baby early in her term. So desperate is she to make things work with Craig, she flies to Peru and adopts another baby girl. And it is this baby girl through whom the events and consequences play principally out.

Margaret Hawkins tells this story through first-person exposition, each main character taking its turn illuminating the story. Even the dog has part of the narrative. We watch as the “sun rises and sets” over the favored older daughter. We watch as neighbors and strangers assume the uncommunicative baby is “slow” as she continues her mute ways. The older girl’s grandmother lavishes gifts on her - April, the favorite. Through it all, the younger girl, May/Esmeralda, keeps her counsel. This utter lack of even a semblance of balance between the treatment of the two girls forces the narrative along, and gives this novel its dark energy. For Esmeralda doesn’t lack for intelligence or emotion. She has the resources, neglectfully made available by Craig, to right these wrongs.

In this piece silence fills the space left empty by all the noisome cant spoken and heard in our modern lives. The small, dark presence of May reminds us that loved ones have needs and desires not to be ignored or forgotten. This least little girl, the nearly forgotten child, owns an unseen energy that exacts a reckoning one grim day and changes everything. This brief story brims over with real humanity – all its needs, all its querulous claims, all its selfishness. The voices of the characters balance the author’s need for realistic speech and plot exposition, and this Ms. Hawkins handles superbly. Sometimes the fatuousness of the individuals hurts, as we wish they would just grow up and give of themselves a little. But this is impossible, given the family’s constitution. It’s left to a noble neighbor woman, neurotic and nearly agoraphobic, and maybe suffering from split personality disorder, to pick up the tatters of this sorry group, and help life go on.

Ms. Hawkins deserves high praise for this intrepid book. It is a dark story, but exceedingly true and unadorned. In fact, its lack of tidy, neat wrapup preserves it, and deserves our lasting admiration and gratitude. Memorable, thought-provoking, balanced, and faithful, it proves Ms. Hawkins's ability and we're all richer for her having told it.
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