Kathryn Magendie’s novel, Tender Graces, reminds me of that famous line from the Sting song, “If you love somebody, set them free.”
Tender Graces is more than a story of the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It is the story of a young girl named Virginia Kate, who overcomes great obstacles to discover who she is. Above all it is a story that teaches valuable lessons about what constitutes a family.
The presence of ghosts is a recurring theme as almost all of the characters are haunted by the past. In some cases, the ghosts represent the pain of a wrenching decision. In other cases, the ghosts are actions the characters cannot take back.
Spanning an entire generation, Tender Graces is set in the mountains of West Virginia and the muggy and wet terrain of Louisiana. The story begins with the courtship and quick marriage of Virginia Kate’s mother, Katie Ivene Holm, to Frederick Carey, a Shakespeare-quoting traveling salesman. Katie’s mom, Grandma Faith, sees Frederick as the best hope for her daughter to escape a future of poverty and abuse, so she sets her free. Life with Frederick isn’t much better, though. His drinking and womanizing cause Katie to hit the bottle herself. Three children come in rapid succession: Micha, Virginia Kate, and Andy.
Magendie skillfully uses images such as the ice hitting the glass, shouting behind closed doors, and Virginia Kate taking refuge in the closet to dramatize the pain the children endure. The couple divorces and Frederick moves to Texas and then to Louisiana, where he marries Rebekha. When Virginia Kate first meets Rebekha, she wants nothing to do with her. Eventually, Frederick takes all three children, one by one, from his ex-wife, whose life continues on a downward spiral.
Rebekha’s relationship with Virginia Kate provides some of the more heartwarming moments in the novel. Virginia Kate comes to see Rebekha as a mother figure and Rebekha gives her love unconditionally to all three children. When Virginia Kate returns to West Virginia to nurse her mother back to health after a serious car accident, her mother sends her away again. It is not an act of rejection, but an act of love. Like her mother before her, Katie Ivene knows she must set her daughter free.
Magendie’s prose has a simple elegance. She uses imagery and setting to underscore the themes of the story. This is a touching family saga that I highly recommend.
Kathryn Magendie is based in Western North Carolina. She is the publishing editor of The Rose & Thorn. Her published novels are: The Graces Sagas (Tender Graces – April 2009 & Secret Graces – April 2010), and Sweetie – November 2010. A novella-length work “Petey” in the anthology “The Firefly Dance” was released Summer 2011. The final in the Graces Saga Trilogy, “Family Graces” will be released spring 2012.