Crane Cavanaugh, the central character in Lucia Nevai’s novel Salvation, is the kind of character that will remind you to count your blessings; that as bad as things are they could be worse.
Crane’s mother, a prostitute living with two former charlatan evangelists/revivalists, tried to end her life in the womb and fails to provide for her in almost every conceivable way after she survives. She lives, along with her half-siblings “Jima” and “Little Duck”, in a squatters shack in rural Iowa trying to scrounge up enough food to live.
As you might imagine, this leaves her with some significant emotional and psychological damage to overcome. She does seem to have, however, a mind attuned to math and science; a useful tool to avoid the cruelty that surrounds her.
Eventually her mother’s activities lead to her being seized by the state. After a short time spent in a convent, she is then adopted by a couple who happen to live in the now developed area surrounding the shack. Her adopted parents – churchgoing Methodists named Ollie and Ray Hopkins – don’t know the darker secrets of Crane’s past, but Ollie nevertheless attempts to give Crane, now christened Princess, a normal life; or something approaching normalcy anyways.
But all of the love and care provided by the Hopkins’ can’t hide Crane’s past and eventually it comes bubbling up and wrecks havoc with Ollie’s best laid plans.
I have a hard time describing Salvation. PW describes it as a “meditation on chance, identity and circumstance” and credits Nevai with creating “a cast of sympathetic, memorable grotesques.” And I suppose this is an accurate literary description.
I suppose it is the rather common technique of exaggerating certain events and characteristics in order to think about larger themes. And Nevai certainly touches on aspects of chance and identity. What would happen if you took a largely abandoned and abused child like Crane and put her in an odd but stable and loving home? Could she overcome that past and blend in? It is the old nature versus nurture debate.
But for me the larger themes involved never quite came together. (In addition to chance and identity there seems to be some exploration of faith and science as well. After all, Crane grew up with people involved in evangelism even if it was of the charlatan variety. And despite the crucial role of science in her survival and success academically, she makes her peace with the faith of the Hopkins.) All of these ideas seem to swirl around in the background, but I didn’t find any of them particular clear or insightful.
What I enjoyed about Salvation was the writing. Nevai skillfully balances the bizarre with the everyday. She has a way of bringing out the way life often lands somewhere in between. Crane is a unique character, with some elements of the grotesque, but Nevai manages to pull it off with believability and poignancy. With a strong start she immediately pulls the reader into Crane’s word and forget about the fantastical or macabre nature of the story. She also brings a sharp wit and a lightness to the writing despite the at times ugly nature of the events involved.
The secondary characters, and the Iowa setting itself, are all developed enough to add to the story without seeming like loose ends or distractions. Crane is the voice that carries the story but the other aspects are not caricatures or mere props. One gets a sense not just of Crane but of the community she is a part of and the time period in which the story is set. Despite its short length – 240 pages – the story doesn’t feel thin.
If there was one aspect that had a tendency to cause the story to drag for me, it was the narrative that focused on Crane’s ant science project. Clearly, Nevai was comparing and contrasting the way Crane felt comfortable and competent in the world of scientific observation but not in normal social settings; and perhaps commenting on the differences and similarities between ant and human development. But these extended reports on the progress of the project were distracting to me. Maybe I missed some larger context or point.
Salvation was certainly not the typical type of book I read, but I enjoyed it and found the writing to be strong even if I didn’t find the various themes all that compelling.