I signed up to be a part of the blog tour for Tanya Eby's In the Garden Room because of its intriguing and somewhat dark premise. With only the description on Goodreads to go by, the reader already knows that a little girl is looking at her mother's dead body, but instead of grief she feels relief.
The Situation: Eleven year-old Lillian March lives in Traverse City, Michigan with her mother Cora, and her father John. Though they aren't rich - in fact, Cora makes what little she can from cleaning for the Milliken's, whose property they live on - Lillian is fairly content with her life and seems to derive most of her joy from reading the biology books that are brought to her by her father. John also seems happy, though he wishes he could provide more for his wife and daughter. The fact that he comes home everyday smelling of fish is one of the many reasons Cora is unhappy. She resents having to clean house for a wealthier family, and feels that her youth and good looks were stolen from her, with her husband and daughter being the thieves. The cherry orchard she was promised by John before they were married has yet to arrive, and this gives her justification to lie to her daughter and move them both to the big city of Chicago, while John is away on a long fishing voyage with no clue as to where they have gone.
The Problem: Life in Chicago is nothing like Cora dreamt it would be, and the man she followed there is not the knight in shinning armor she thought he was. Almost immediately, the shared savings that she and her husband had accumulated over the years is almost gone, and all Cora has to show for it is a gaudy dress and a shabby rented room. Young Lillian needs food, and soon it becomes clear she'll need a job too, as Cora can't be relied on to work, too busy chasing the life she has always fantasized about. When things go from bad to worse, and Cora sells her daughter while in a drug-induced haze, it seems like things could not possibly get any darker, until they do. Now John must do everything he can to rescue his little girl before she is lost forever.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in 1910. The book first starts out in Traverse City, Michigan, but eventually moves to Chicago, where Cora makes her "escape" with Lillian. While Traverse City is peaceful and serene, if a little boring and uptight, Chicago is depicted as the big dirty city filled with people looking only to take what little you have. Everyone seems to want a little more than what they have, which means Cora fits right in. But because she isn't savvy enough to actually make it in the big city, or willing to work, and can't seem to see people for what they really are, the city quickly swallows her, leaving 11 year-old Lillian on her own, for the most part. Eby explores Chicago's worst areas, from the red light district, to the sights, smells, and horrible sounds emerging from the meatpacking district with its slaughterhouses and brutal foremen. No one can be trusted, and everyone is out for themselves. Even little Lillian isn't spared, with those put in charge over her, Cora included, believing that she has to learn how cruel the world is at some point, and 11 years-old is old enough for them.
My Verdict: This is a tough book to read, particularly if you are sensitive when it comes to acts of aggression - including sexual acts of aggression - towards women and children. It is apparent fairly early on that Eby is not going to hold back when addressing the vulgarity of some of the citizens in early 20th century Chicago. She also does not hold back when it comes to Cora, who is certainly one of the most selfish mothers I have ever read about in a book...and I have read a lot of books that included selfish or jaded mothers (Scarlett O'Hara anyone?). But Cora's inability to care about anyone besides herself makes Lillian's story all the more tragic and heart-breaking. And ultimately, Eby pulls off the difficult task of having the reader understand how a little girl could be relieved at seeing the dead body of her own mother.
Favorite Moment: When John's German friend, Willem, breaks in the face of a pedophile.
Favorite Character: Chester is a young boy whom Lillian meets at her first job in Chicago. At first he seems like a trickster and a smart ass, and he is both of those things. But ultimately he turns out to be both protective and helpful. He reminded me a lot of Gavroche from Les Miserables.
Recommended Reading: I recommend The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The book follows three girls who must find a way to keep themselves together after their father dies and their mother drinks away what little money she is able to make as a laundress.