Today we welcome back poet and educator Jo Taylor to Write from the Inside Out. Jo lives in Raleigh and is extremely active in the North Carolina poetry community. She organizes the Sundry Poets reading at Quail Ridge Books and is the author of several poetry chapbooks, most recently High Ground.We’re very lucky to have her here reviewing Angela Belcher Epps’s novella Salt in the Sugar Bowl which is about the aftermath of six children who have been abandoned by their mother. One of the book’s themes is that in our media-obsessed culture we can lose track of our true selves—we’re afraid of being our true selves because if we are, then our loved ones might leave us. Side note: Angela will be one of our Wonderland Book Club authors in 2015—stay tuned!
When you read Salt in the Sugar Bowl, the novella by Angela Belcher Epps, prepare to feel angry, sympathetic, and optimistic. If you are lucky enough to catch an Epps reading, she will tell you right up front what this book is about: the effects of abandonment. It is clear she has done her homework.
Sophia, faced with an untenable situation and no way to improve it, leaves her husband and six children. She tells her plan only to Eva, her oldest daughter, explaining, “‘I’m leaving because I think things will get a lot worse for everybody as long as I’m here.’” Stoic about her decision, Sophia robs Eva of her childhood because the burden of family life will fall to her. The day after she confides in Eva, she drives to work and never returns home.
The first chapter is the story of Sophia’s departure. Chapter Two frames Hunter, her husband, eight years later. Succeeding sections focus on each child and the effects of loss and abandonment on him or her. Epps skillfully moves from one character’s story to the next without attempting to speak in eight separate personas or voices in first person point of view, often the downfall of a multiple-viewpoint novel. Each story is told in third person.
Though it comes toward the end, Boyd, the oldest son, states the subject of the book: “…he and his siblings had something akin to afflictions that started with their mother’s leaving. They’d had Sophia just long enough to probably go on missing her forever—each one in a different way.” It is Boyd who strives to create stability and community for himself and those he loves. One of his virtues is understanding for whom such a community works and for whom it doesn’t.
Each character acts out the trauma of loss in his or her life. Cook, the second son, leaves home at age fifteen. He steals from his father to finance a bus ride to New York City. In the city he suffers abuse on the streets, which feeds his distrust of everyone and everything. He lives an indigent existence in an abandoned mobile home with a “wife” and three children for whom there are no birth records; he scavenges, hustles, and thieves when he has to in order to feed them; he leads a life without community. Cook is hollow, noting, “…when his mother left, she took the heart out of him.” Kurt, the youngest brother, craves love and connection with a wide-open heart, and, of course, gets his heart trampled on.
Among the three daughters, Carlene, as a teenager, seeks a mother figure. Lisa, unsettled and always on the move, is promiscuous and engages in risky behavior. Eva is suspicious and accusing of her husband, yet fearful of being alone. Anticipating a sudden move for herself and her children, Eva says, “Sometimes things go wrong, and life just makes you leave.” All of the girls seek their own kind of freedom, not necessarily understanding that it is exactly what their mother did.
As a reader of Salt in the Sugar Bowl, you may feel anger toward parents who cannot maintain family life and yet sympathize with their circumstances, feel sorry for the dysfunction in the lives of the innocent bystanders. You may feel optimistic about the healing that can take place within a community. Also as a reader, you will thank Epps for the lives of these characters and hope for a sequel. After all, wouldn’t we really like to know what happened to Sophia? Will Kurt find true love? Will Cook ever meet up with Boyd?
Salt in the Sugar Bowl is available from Main Street Rag and at Amazon.
Jo Barbara Taylor lives near Raleigh, NC. Her poems and academic writing have appeared in journals, magazines and anthologies. Her most recent chapbook is High Ground published by Main Street Rag, 2013.