It’s a testament to Cindy Dyson’s power as a writer that I was able to identify with and root for a main character who is so different from me and has so many characteristics that I tend to think of as weaknesses (the casual drug use and the alcohol abuse in particular). I’ll try not to get on my soapbox here, but it bugged me that despite all the drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, somehow Brandy managed never to have a hangover or a cocaine craving, never seemed to have a smoker’s cough or be short of breath – in short never suffered any consequences for all of the various poisons she put in her body (and  had been for 10-15 years). And yet, despite my profound dislike for many of her actions, I was not able to dislike her. I was able to find things we had in common, to identify with her, and even to admire her grit and courage.

Brandy’s backstory consists of a pretty dysfunctional set of parents. Her dad was a drunk but was trying to be a good dad, encouraging her to love learning and to make something of herself. Her mom chased him off by ridiculing him while trying to make Brandy into a carbon copy of herself. Brandy herself has grown into a mix of the two, and their conflict continues in Brandy’s life and personality. She has her mom’s shallow focus on looks and men, and her dad’s scholarly analytical skills, curiosity and reading habit. But her mom’s belittling of anything to do with her dad shows up in the fact that Brandy has become a drifter rather than finishing college. These two parts of Brandy combine and overlap in funny, quirky ways such as her notebooks full of “latrinealia” – bits of graffiti she’s found on bathroom walls – and her soliloquys on blonds (the different types, and the history of the fake blond), plus the very fact that she feels the need to distinguish herself from the various stereotypes of blonds. The mind she gets from her dad is trying desperately to surface above the dismissive contempt she gets from her mom.

One quote that stuck with me:

I wondered about the imprint left by happy childhoods. I imagined who I’d be if mine had been different.

I think this also, in a way, links her to the Aleut women and the children who were taken from Unalaska by social services. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Brandy’s home situation was not exactly ideal, even though many of the conditions Busy Mouth Holton was looking for in Little Liz’s time were met. Brandy certainly had access to education – so much so that she was screwing her high school English teacher. And her mom not only approved but helped her find a time and place and keep it secret. Yeah, not exactly an ideal home life.

Another question for discussion – what do you think of the ending? Specifically of Brandy returning to the cave and taking the finger bone?

What power did I seek? … I sought the power to choose, to control my own fate. The power to be fully human. … To live with intention, in the full force of our own will, is the most essential and the most dangerous thing we will ever do. It is the act that makes us fully human.

And she continues the small ritual of telling her children (notice she includes her son as well as her daughter):

You hold your fate, your future right here in these hands. They are full. Do you feel it? Do you feel the weight?

In general, I love the empowerment of this ritual, but I’m torn about the messages sent by retelling the story of the Aleut women (and Brandy obviously is too: “And I don’t know, all these years later, what they were, are. Monsters? Martyrs? Heroes?”). So what is the real message? That we hold our fate in our own hands? That if we are willing to take great risk we can make great changes?

And, with regards to the finger – is that message of change only believable if there’s great mystery or ritual involved? Does Brandy believe that she was only able to make these changes in herself because of this mystery? Because of the dead man’s fat she touched on the ferry? Because of a 60-year-old mummified finger joint that she stole and keeps in a jar in a drawer of her desk? Sure, there’s power in talismans – even if it’s primarily a psychological power – and premium power in something forbidden and taboo, but I think a picture postcard of the Aleutian Mona Lisa (who Brandy really seemed to connect with) might have worked too.

What are your thoughts about Brandy? Things that clicked for you or stood out in the story?

 

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