Foster kids are often called orphans of the living. It’s a particularly apt designation and rich emotional territory for a novel. Foster kids can neither mourn their missing parents nor fully attach to their surrogates; they are caught in the purgatory between a full loss and a fresh start. It’s a wonder more authors don’t find characters here.
Marjorie Celona’s debut novel, Y, digs deep into child welfare’s most overlooked casualty: the foster child after she’s been rescued and adopted, but before she’s answered her fundamental question. “Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why?” Celona writes this in her preamble in the voice of Shannon, the story’s protagonist, who grows up on Vancouver Island over the course of the book. Y is also the first letter of the name of Shannon’s biological mother, Yula, who abandoned her the day she was born on the steps of a local Y(MCA).
These Y-themes could be coy or cute, but, presented through Celona’s deft prose, they read instead as symbols of a child desperate for clues that will give meaning to her fragmented life. I have a foster daughter who’s now an adult, but when she was a kid and making her rounds through multiple homes, she used to collect keys on the street. Each one, she thought, might unlock the secret to why her life had been so terrible.
Shannon’s question, her “Y,” is similar to that of the few hundred kids I’ve known in foster care. “Why didn’t my mother want me?” (or, alternately, “why didn’t she do more to keep me?”) is the question that drives Celona’s book. Armed only with a newspaper clipping about her discovery at the YMCA, Shannon moves through a few marginal and even abusive foster homes until she eventually lands, at age five, with an adoptive mother, Miranda, and her biological child. The social worker visits and Shannon whispers that she’s fine, adding, “I want to tell her that I think I really love Miranda but I can’t yet find the courage.” Even as she’s slowly building a bond with Miranda and quietly taking notes on her adoptive sister (“I don’t think she cries like me”), Shannon imagines her mother’s reason for the abandonment. Was she in a band? Was she an alcoholic? Did she just walk off into the ocean or the woods? “In my head, late at night,” Shannon tells us, “I draft letters to my mother and father. I say everything I want to say, everything that needs to be said. In my head, I am so eloquent.”
No matter what’s going on in “real life,” there’s always another mother in the back of one’s mind, tucked away in a different chapter.
The whole novel is narrated from Shannon’s point of view, including alternating chapters about Yula, who in fact remains a mystery to Shannon. We don’t know, until the very end, whether these Yula sections are imagined or are reconstructions culled from some later discovery: they track the days before Shannon’s birth and the terrible circumstances that led to Yula’s decision. “Five days before my mother gives birth to me, my mother kneels at the edge of a flower bed, pulling weeds,” Shannon tells us, and it’s this omniscient child narrator that is both haunting and most aligned with the foster care experience. These sections read as the sort of prescient knowing-without-knowing that so many foster kids seem to possess. No matter what’s going on in “real life,” there’s always another mother in the back of one’s mind, tucked away in a different chapter.
As Shannon gets older, her “why” burns brighter and she tries to find her mother to ask about the abandonment. We get a rare glimpse into Canadian, suburban, middle-class child welfare, which is a refreshing change from the urban foster care tragedies occasionally bandied about in the news. Celona touches on abuse (including a broken arm) in early foster homes, but doesn’t linger, which again keeps us rooted firmly in the child’s experience of scary incidents: they happen, they’re over, you learn to toughen up. Whisked away in a station wagon and given new parents without explanation, Shannon is a child without agency. Unwanted, she doesn’t get to want. When Shannon decides, as a teenager, that she deserves an answer about who her mother really is, it’s a revelation.
Celona cut her teeth at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and in publications like Glimmer Train and the Harvard Review. Her prose, at the sentence level, is simple and clean. We follow Shannon’s story mostly through long stretches of simple dialogue; there isn’t much room for introspection, because Shannon primarily lives her life responding to whatever’s thrown her way. Still, there’s a deeper intelligence at work beneath all the spare, elegant language. Celona is mapping patterns of loss and retrieval, the way kids “find” missing parents by imitating their behaviors. If they can’t find them on the outside, they’ll experience them from within. Accordingly, Shannon self-destructs and rejects the people that love her, the way she imagines her mother rejected her.
Y is populated with characters appropriate to the foster care narrative: the nameless social worker, the resentful foster sister, the hardscrabble adoptive mom who takes occasional breaks from Shannon but never truly leaves her. Yula’s and Shannon’s stories however, are wholly original, and Yula’s is particularly harrowing, shocking, and fresh. When the two finally meet, the book shifts from the particulars of one foster child’s life on a Canadian island to the book’s final question: does discovering the truth about an injury ever ease its pain?