My Abandonment, Peter Rock, 2009
This work could be the literary counterpoint to Gus Van Sant’s movie Paranoid Park. Both feature Portland Oregon, the Saint John’s bridge, skateboarders, the rail yard.
This novel is a coming of age novel about a young girl, Caroline, age 13 who has been living hidden with her gentle giant father in forest park, across the river from Portland for the past four years. She is home schooled, home currently being a cave they have furnished with a partial Encyclopedia Britannica, a paperback dictionary, and books they check out of the downtown library. The father suffers from nightmares featuring helicopters and tunnels and receives a regular disability check from the government from which we conclude he is veteran, probably of Vietnam. One day in Portland, he is recognized by a man who asks him how his recovery is coming along and Caroline realizes her father was a one time addict, to what we don’t know. He picks up his checks at a P.O. Box and deposits them in his Wells Fargo account. He withdraws only enough for a few purchases at Safeway or a thrift store. Mostly they scavenge and grow their own vegetables. They are vegetarians and Caroline’s education consists not only of books and chess, but of wilderness survival techniques. She can climb 100 foot trees to watch for people, move silently through the forest without leaving tracks, can observe people and even wild animals without being detected. We get the sense that in intelligence and wilderness skills, she is quickly surpassing her strict, stoic father. They have occasional contact with other permanent homeless residents of the park but her father discourages this because the others are not like them.
One day their cave is discovered and police assisted by dogs capture them. A social worker gives Caroline intelligence and psychological tests and discovers her to be very healthy and scoring above her grade level academically. This being enlightened Portland, the social workers arrange for Caroline and her father to be placed in a more conventional environment, where the father works on a horse boarding farm for wealthy equestrian woman who train and jump their horses. The two have a relatively luxurious bunk house and the social workers arrive with donations of bicycles, a complete encyclopedia and other books and new clothes. It is expected that Caroline will start attending regular school in the fall.
The father starts acting increasingly erratic and paranoid and suddenly decides to run away from the horse farm. Caroline does not hesitate to accompany him. They try jumping a freight train in the Portland yard, but the father doesn’t know how. They eventually board a bus south but abandon the bus in the mountains near Sisters. It is winter and much colder than Portland and they leave the bus in a snowstorm. They stumble across a hot spring which gets them through the night and the next day they break into an A frame that the father claims belongs to old friends of his. Caroline is starting to have more and more doubts about her father and his judgment. She suddenly has the insight that is the core of the book:
Every problem I have comes from believing something to be true that is not true.
The reader discovers that Caroline, at age 9 and having at the time a different name, was living in a foster home in Boise Idaho with her sister when her father came to get her, explaining that her mother, also named Caroline, died and father was unable previously to take care of the two girls. He has come back now, but can only take care of Caroline so the sister must be left behind. The 9 year old accepts the explanation and new name believing this stranger to be her father and begins her odyssey.
Things deteriorate rapidly with her father and at age 13, Caroline, now alone, travels back to Boise to pick up her sister, Della, who is 10. She finds and observes Della for awhile, finally realizing that Caroline has changed so much she would be unable to reconnect with her more conventional sister. She determines that her sister will be better off staying with her foster family.
Caroline starts reading her father’s diaries and discovers that all the things he has been teaching her about the wilderness and survival he has learned from books. His favorite authors are Emerson, Thoreau, and Rousseau. As Caroline becomes a young woman she realizes that she can only be attracted to a gentle giant man like her father but she has never met another like him.
She is now working part time as a librarian in Sisters and is care taker for the second home set against the wilderness of an absentee wealthy man . She has built herself a Yurt at the back of the property where she lives and keeps her books and journals. She can disappear into the wilderness for days at a time. She still cashes her father’s disability checks and deposits them in the Wells Fargo account where the balance grows. She seems very comfortable with who she has become.