Within our world, ripe with the over-thinking of experience, it’s rare to encounter a coming-of-age story quite as visceral or unselfconsciously honest as that found within Jessie van Eerden’s My Radio Radio. Perhaps it’s the subtly surrealist thread that weaves its way through the tale that disarms the reader, setting her up, even readying her, for the unpacking of whatever symbolic gifts of meaning might emerge from the text. Wings. Radio. A baby chick. The click whirr, hiss hmm of a dying man’s machine. Yet, in spite of all that is foreshadowed, in spite of every ounce of allegory, it is within the journey of twelve-year-old Omi Ruth that each of the answers reside, should one choose to listen.
Omi’s narrative begins on the morning of her menarche. Jumping from her bed before the other members of the Dunlap Fellowship of All Things in Common have risen, she knows that the blood soaked through her gown and into her sheets is evidence, as she’s learned in home school, that she has at last grown into womanhood. Her first instinct is to run, which she does, down the hall and into a room she thinks empty; yet, on the bed beside the window lies the body of an unresponsive man, whose form is so white, it is as though light were radiating through his skin, “like sun coming through the tree leaves so the veins are barely there.” To her, there is something beautiful, near Godly, about the thought, and she finds comfort within the stillness of his presence.
Just prior to her arrival in his room, Omi assumes, in her haste, full responsibility for her transition and acknowledges the craving that has so abruptly taken hold within her.
If I hadn’t woken up so fast and slapped my feet so hard to the floorboards, I might have put off the blood and my life might have been different. Everything might have been different. Maybe I would not have grown this sudden hunger for a hush to come over me and wrap me into it. I would not have starved so for this white white stillness that has started growing and spreading out like fog.
Finding solace in tending to the old man, Omi discovers that her transition into the full bloom of womanhood initially compels her to constrict rather than expand her experience of the world around her, which is wholeheartedly supported by the Fellowship, given its mightily isolationist view on salvation; while, her brother’s unexpected death only serves to tether her more firmly to that one corner of the world she knows best. Yet, with the arrival of Tracie, a young expectant mother, who quickly takes on the role of a big sister, and the awareness that her brother, Wood, has not been provided with a proper gravestone, Omi comes to realize that her deepest convictions can be manifested but very well may require a bit of disobedience and a fair amount of dishonesty on her part.
What remains to be gleaned from van Eerden’s novel—from the bigotry, hypocrisy and emotional distance so often encountered within organized religion to a young woman’s inevitable loss of innocence—proves nearly boundless; yet, to get caught up in making sense of the author’s intent before the story is told is to lose the momentum of Omi’s experience, which could not possibly be more essential.
Though Omi may be introverted with a mouth full of crooked teeth that she tends to hide behind her hand and a thicket of wild hair, she remains incredibly likeable and as reliable a narrator as one’s ever bound to find. She’s as self-aware as they come; and, though she may be wary of the secular world, she wouldn’t think to shy away from the truth as she knows it—until she determines that it’s pertinent she do so.
Without exaggeration, the way in which van Eerden paces her story is so utterly masterful that one is apt to disregard Omi’s internal transformation until she reaches the most crucial of junctures, though, the process can be witnessed so very clearly in retrospect. One could say it’s, well, kind of like life.
And, life being as chaotic and incomprehensible as it is, I contend that My Radio Radio is a novel not meant to be read between appointments, on the train, or in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, for its nuances are more than deserving of one’s attention and wholehearted emotional investment. Provided it’s “you at the dial, tuning through static,” chances are you’ll come away changed.