Crane Cavanaugh is one of the most endearing, strange and exceptional protagonists I have encountered in recent memory. Take the strong opening of the prologue:
With abject, slavish desire, with offhand, sloppy curiosity, with gratitude, with sedation, I was accidentally engendered. Never say the word rid around me. My mother tried to get rid of me. My face to this day is deformed, my forehead bumpy, puffy, and white as mold. Her attempt was halfhearted; her method unknown. Where do I feel it? In the lungs. It comes back in winter when I wheeze. It comes back when I feel cowardly.
Lucia Nevai's Salvation is a witty, heartbreaking romp of a novel. Crane confronts the reader head-on with unabashed candor. The product of an aborted abortion, Crane is disfigured physically, but intellectually, she’s a genius. Growing up dirt poor in rural Iowa with her beloved siblings Little Duck and Jima, Crane learns to suppress her smarts from the rest of her dysfunctional family, three “preacher-parents” who met on the Missouri revival-circuit and later shacked up together in Iowa. According to Crane, “They were all saved by the same great itinerant healer. Salvation didn’t last. Even we three ignorant kids could see that.” It’s worth noting Crane’s parents, for their names alone: Crane’s mother Tit, a devastatingly beautiful vitamin rep and hooker; Big Duck, a faux-Reverend alcoholic who’s in love with Tit; and Flat, Big Duck’s maniacal, bible-thumping wife, whose “large Irish chin was flat with extra obedience to God.” As a child, Crane is teased mercilessly for her deformity, even by her own parents, but she survives through sheer tenacity and gumption.
Trouble ensues when the community of Lake Mary is built and Crane’s family is forced from their squatters shack. Seized by the county, Crane is separated from her siblings and adopted by Ollie and Ray Hopkins. Ironically, she ends up back in Lake Mary as one of the girls she used to envy as a child. Although a self-described “dead ringer” for Benjamin Franklin, Crane is desperate for love and indulges Ollie’s fervent attempts to transform her into a popular, desirable teenager. Along the way, she discovers her extraordinary aptitude for science and realizes where her heart belongs.
From laugh-out-loud hilarious to searingly poignant, Nevai crafts a powerful story about family, growing up, loss and redemption. Crane never loses sight of her own uncertain place in the world, and this honest book brings to life one of the most fiercely intelligent, delightfully quirky and strangely beautiful protagonists in contemporary fiction. You will reach the last page craving more of Crane Cavanaugh.