Fantasy provides escape from adolescent’s grim reality in ‘Crocodile Bride’

Ashleigh Bell Pedersen, author of "Crocodile Bride." Courtesy of Hub City Press

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Ashleigh Bell Pedersen, author of "Crocodile Bride." Courtesy of Hub City Press

Louisiana bayou provides the setting for Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s debut novel.

Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s sorrowful coming-of-age debut “The Crocodile Bride,” set in the marshy swampland of the Atchafalaya Basin in 1980s Louisiana, is a bayou fairytale swirling with evil “haint” spirits and the ghosts of those who have borne similar trials. Moods transform into weather, and the confusion of adolescence is pressed against the legacy of generational abuse in this pensive story of endurance and survival.

The summer Sunshine Turner turns 12 is one of profound change for her. It starts when she wakes up one day with stones in her chest, one behind each nipple. She doesn’t understand where they came from or how to get them out. Sadly, she has nobody to ask. Her mom isn’t around. Her dad, Billy, can be good natured and loving at times, but he’s the kind of guy that, “if you got it wrong, if you misinterpreted his mood, if you asked for too much, you were bound for disappointment.”

Sunshine’s cousin Joanna “JL” Louise is a few years older but would most likely use Sunshine’s inquiry to chastise her ignorance. Aunt Lou, the closest person Sunshine has to a mother, schools her on the need for modesty now that she’s developing breasts. But the stones, how they got there and what they mean, isn’t something they would ever talk about. So Sunshine struggles to understand what’s happening to her body all on her own.

As Sunshine’s adolescence unfurls into a reality of angst and confusion, Pedersen rewinds to how the Turner family came to inhabit the sagging yellow stilt house in the one-road town of Fingertip. The New Deal village was created by Eleanor Roosevelt to attract post-war families seeking jobs at the nearby sugar mill. In the 1940s, John Jay and Catherine Turner relocate to Fingertip to claim their piece of the American Dream. It’s an isolating move for Catherine that torpedoes John Jay’s penchant for hurting his wife into a way of life.

Catherine escapes into fantasy as a means of enduring her abuse. She explains to her children, Billy and Lou, that the marks John Jay leaves on her body are the result of an encounter with angry elves who visit her in the night. This need to elude reality is also the impetus for Catherine’s creation of the Crocodile Bride, a mysterious healer who lives deep in the Black Bayou protected by a gargantuan crocodile.

If she can love them with enough fervor and attentiveness, Catherine believes “her children might eventually confuse memories of their mother’s love with memories of their father’s, and the two would intermingle in their minds so that the truth of how he ruled their lives in the yellow house would be eclipsed entirely.”

Instead, Catherine’s acquiescence manifests in heartbreaking ways for both her children. Lou follows in her mother’s footsteps and marries a man worse than John Jay. Billy, who struggles with a mood disorder and was psychologically abused by his father, relies on escapist storytelling and alcohol to dull his pain.

Sunshine believes the liquor invites “haints” into the yellow house. It is when Billy is in a drunken stupor that he notices Sunshine’s maturing body.

In Sunshine’s character, Pedersen has encapsulated the taut emotions of a rudderless child spinning about, aimlessly searching for guidance. Sunshine’s confusion, her desire to belong, her innate need for security and safety that just don’t exist in her world create lasting images that are hauntingly relatable and profoundly sad.

Pedersen’s depiction of Sunshine’s adolescent angst is fraught with tension and rich with compassion. The mechanism she uses to describe Sunshine’s internal feelings of apprehension — a tribe of tightrope walkers dancing around in her stomach — appears multiple times throughout the novel. Writing that “suddenly the tightrope walkers were back in her belly again, kicking their legs high, showing off” is an astoundingly effective way to convey Sunshine’s strumming currents of stress and how quickly they consume her.

Both Catherine and Sunshine bear the burden of living with an unpredictable man. While John Jay is a monster without a backstory, a narcissistic character whose mere presence foretells of victimization and trauma, Billy is more complex. His uplifting “June moods” make Sunshine feel “like the roof had been torn right off the yellow house all together and light filled it like gold.” But when his moods turn, it brings the rain pouring down over their kitchen table, regardless of the clear weather outside.

Catherine is an adult who could leave her husband but lacks confidence in herself. Sunshine is a child who is stuck without anywhere else to go except Aunt Lou’s, a place JL is quick to remind Sunshine isn’t her house and Aunt Lou isn’t her mom. The result is, both grandmother and granddaughter exist in a profound state of loneliness and seek to be ignored rather than seen. Both develop a posture of minimizing themselves. This shared feeling of hopelessness and suppression is the vehicle through which Catherine’s ghost reveals itself to Sunshine in some of her darkest times.

The gift Catherine does leave behind, escaping to a magical place as a means of surviving an unbearable reality, comes through for Sunshine in the end. Catherine’s legacy, coupled with Aunt Lou finding the fortitude her mother never did, concludes the story on a note of hope.

Emotionally wrought yet infused with a tender and accessible depiction of adolescent struggle, “Crocodile Bride” examines the ways victims of domestic violence mentally survive their realities and the mechanisms of perseverance passed through the generations.


FICTION

‘The Crocodile Bride’

by Ashleigh Bell Pedersen

Hub City Press

296 pages, $26