Striking, sad, suspenseful, Up From the Blue tells the coming-of-age story of Tillie Harris. Set in her third-grade year, the novel focuses on the home life of Tillie. The father, a colonel in the air force, develops navigation systems for missiles. The older brother, Phil, tries his hardest to be a small soldier: orderly, emotionless, and compliant. Tillie herself is an energetic eight-year-old, full of conflicting emotions and confusing expectations from the adult world. It is her mother, though, who is the star of the book. Red-headed, dreamy-eyed, the mother swings from being loving and tender, the only one who understands Tillie, to vacant and lost, sitting on the couch or lying in bed for days on end. As the mother’s depression deepens and the conflict extends from between the parents to create an ever-widening gulf into which the entire family slides, Tillie risks losing not just her mother but herself.
The most successful aspect of this novel—and there are many successes—is the counterpoint that Henderson has set up. While most of the novel takes place in the mid-seventies, while Tillie is an eight-year-old, the novel opens with a present-day story line: the grown up Tillie about to give birth, unexpectedly early, to her first child. The movement between the two story lines, and especially the poignancy with which Tillie enters into motherhood in her own way, keeps the novel taut. The best moments come not from the tension between these two storylines, but from the resolution, as Tillie notices her father, whom she has been forced to call in this emergency, and how “even when he’s not wearing his uniform, and though there’s no way for the nurse to know that this slender man is largely responsible for nearly ninety thousand tons of bombs dropped this winter in the Persian gulf war, my dad is giving orders and people carry them out.” The juxtaposition of the grown-up Tillie and the child Tillie allow for not just growth but realization and, ultimately, acceptance.
Henderson’s novel is full of good story; I found it to be a page-turner from the start. Good writing also abounds, particularly in the minute definition of characters, as with Tillie, who, in third grade, likes to bite:
The feel of my teeth sinking into something so soft was only part of it. There was something comforting about that first yelp when I went deep, something about the crying, and the teacher shouting my name as she pulled us apart…I liked how everything happened the same way each time, right up to me walking home with a note pinned to my shirt that proved the things I thought had happened were the very same things my teacher thought had happened. Everything made sense.
Henderson has meticulously crafted these individuals. Every member of the family, as well as the minor characters, such as Anne, the father’s secretary, is fully embodied and understandable to the reader. So too is the setting, the details of a school recently integrated, of a house made both plain and confusing by military order. Best, though, is Tillie, and her luminous interior world. Henderson carefully explores the psychological dimensions of a girl who loves her mother and doesn’t understand her father or the world around her. Lost and unable to figure out how to find herself, Tillie’s moments of reflection are gorgeous and troubling: “everyone likes to tell you the ways you’re wrong and the ways you can improve yourself and what you should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes you have to tune it out or there’s nothing left of you that’s right.”
Given the abundance of coming-of-age stories and the plethora of tales of troubled, depressive mothers, Up From the Blue has a hard time charting new ground. Indeed, Henderson does slip into the clichéd phrases, as when Tillie hears her parents fight and decides that “after another moment, it didn’t hurt anymore. I found I could do this—could put my emotions in little boxes and close them up tight.” At times like these, Henderson offers nothing new: not a new idea and not new phrasing. That said, the novel resists predictability in several key ways. Without spoiling the story, I’ll simply say that Henderson makes the reader walk the edge with Tillie, creating a world that could be fantasy or could be real, and this tension of possibility (and the risks associated with either answer) is hair-raising.
Eminently readable, this is a novel to get lost in. Before opening the cover, prepare for some sadness and clear the rest of the day: it isn’t easy to put this one down.