(Jump down to read a review of Traveling Light)
"The Kindness of Strangers"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 22, 2006)
“Sixty-seven percent of the victims of all reported sexual assaults are children. You can check those statistics through the Department of Justice of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or any number of other organizations. The point I’m trying to make is that child sexual abuse is not unusual. It’s a common problem, kept common by silence.”
The best thing about MostlyFiction.com is finding new authors. Over the years, I have received many books unsolicited or with prodding from publishers and sometimes even authors. Not all books work out equally, true enough. But when they do, there is such satisfaction. Katrina Kittle is one such author. To have been published in the first place, she happened to be in the right place at the right time and, most importantly, to have the talent to back up her luck. The Kindness of Strangers is Kittle’s third novel and like the previous two novels, this one sucked me in from page one.
When I tell you what this book is about, please do not glaze over and think that this is not your kind of book. Kittle is an expert at drawing out characters to the point that you feel like you should talk about Danny or Nate or Jordan as if they were real people. In fact, any book group would have a rich discussion talking about the choices each character makes and how events affect each. She also tends to build up the story by letting each character tell their part, adding bit by bit to the whole. We all know how this works in a mystery but she keeps this supsense going in her general fiction.
At the start of the novel, the Laden family is preparing for a wedding. Danny makes note of how he loves the fact that his family is able to appreciate such events more than most, because they know that they survived “that summer” twelve years earlier. Thus, The Kindness of Strangers is “the story of how they became who they are now.”
"That summer" begins with Sarah Laden, recently widowed and the mother of two boys: eleven-year-old Danny and nearly seventeen- year-old Nate. Both boys miss their father and give Sarah a hard time, not so much intentionally but as a consequence of their own anger. Until recently, Danny has been the one who could do no wrong but something has changed and Sarah doesn’t know what. She does know that Danny and his best friend, Jordan, have had a falling out. And Nate has been suspended from school twice and has had one appearance in juvenile court. Sarah is at a loss as to how to handle her boys and when she’s not missing her husband, she’s angry with him for leaving her alone. Not that it was his fault that he had cancer. This is where things stand on the morning twelve years ago when “before” turns into “after.”
Sarah runs a catering business out of her home and on the way back from the fish market she drives by Courtney’s house. Courtney is her best friend and Jordan's mother. It’s raining hard, but it is not an unpleasant spring rain in this Ohio small town. (The town is so small it doesn’t need a school bus.) She herself had stood out in the rain earlier in the morning and both her boys (for Nate it’s a defiant act) walked to school. Yet, she is surprised to see Jordan coming down the long driveway, carrying his backpack in front of him, and completely wet. He is an hour late for school and she thinks it is strange that Courtney didn’t drive him as she normally does. She pulls up to Jordan and offers him a ride and he accepts. He’s a strange boy and not much for talking but Sarah tries anyway. He tells her that his mom (who is an obstetrician) had an emergency and that he had fallen back to sleep. Sarah realizes that the boy is sick with a fever and right about that moment Jordan asks her to pull over because he needs a bathroom.
The only toilet available is port-a-potty but Jordan is desperate and uses it. She assumes diarrhea because if it were her, she’d prefer to vomit anywhere than one of these units. When he doesn’t come out after a reasonable time, she checks on him. She finds him on the floor with his head touching the dirty toilet and a needle in his neck. She brings him to the hospital.
All of this (and more) takes place in the first twenty pages. And it doesn't stop as it continues with shocking headline grabbing news; it is discovered that Jordan has been repeatedly sexually abused, his mother is arrested and an all-points bulletin is out on his father. The immediate evidence clearly condemns his father but the jury is still out on Courtney, at least initially.
From here Kittle first takes the story through Sarah’s shock as she processes the reality of the situation. Naturally, she experiences a great dissonance between “her-best-friend-Courtney” and the one sitting in jail on child molestation charges. How could she be so fooled? Can she ever trust her own judgment again? But that is nothing compared to the anguish at not knowing that these awful things were happening to Jordan. Nate and Danny each experience this in their own way as well. And then there is Jordan's view of his world. Because Kittle uses separate chapters for viewpoint and yet advances the timeline, the story moves very rapidly yet also thoroughly covers all angles. For example, in the beginning of the book we know how Sarah finds Jordan in the driveway, but much later Jordan relates what really happened on the rainy morning. Nothing is left unsaid, everything is revealed in its own time. Kittle is skilled at teasing out the story with page-turning supense at the same time as giving us realistic and thorough characters.
Another thing that Kittle conveys quite well is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways in which Jordan's experience of the world differs because of what he has gone through. There is one point in the book in which all of the professional adults who have been helping him are gathered in Sarah's kitchen. They call him into the house because they have some bad news, not once thinking about what this must seem like to a boy who has been molested by a group of adults in his own home. "Even with the air-conditioning, the house felt more suffocating than the heavy heat outside. Suffocating. S-u-f-f-o-c-a-t-i-n-g. That sickening anticipation filled him. A-n-t-i-c-i-p-a-t-i-o-n. The not-wanting-it-to-happen fighting the wanting-to-get-it-over-with. He stood in the island and waited." Kittle does very little to explicitely explain Jordan's experiences, this is not a voyeristic novel. Instead, she skillfully gives us the context to understand this heartbreaker of a paragraph.
In the acknowledgements, Kittle mentions an organization called Darkness to Light, which is a national nonprofit organization whose goal is shift the responsibility for preventing child abuse from the children to the adults. While this message is clearly reinforced throughout the novel, it never feels contrived or preachy.
Kittle tackled AIDs in her first novel and alchoholism in her second. I can’t imagine what her fourth novel will be about, but I’m positive it will be something that I normally would not want to read or think about but will be glad that she did. The Kindness of Strangers is highly recommended for the pleasure of reading and the education.
- Amazon readers' rating: from 78 reviews
Read Chapter One of The Kindness of Strangers at the author's website.(back to top)
"Two Truths and a Lie"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 17, 2001)Dair Canard is a liar. What began as recreational is now habitual and even she is beginning to think she's out of control. She started lying back in grade school after telling all her classmates what she believed to be the truth, "My mother talks to animals and helps solve their problems. She's like a translator to people." The kids poked so much fun at her that she quickly adopted the policy to lie when the truth seemed too improbable. (She also stopped acknowledging her mother's talent.)
Later she started to tell lies when the truth was too boring. It soon became a habit to lie whenever she could just to test when someone might detect her fabrications. This includes the day that she met Peyton while each was walking their dogs. She told a lie that after eight years of marriage was getting harder and harder to manage. The problem with lying is that you have to remember what you said and make sure no one else reveals the truth in the course of conversation. After awhile, this all consuming lie has become such a part of Dair's fabric that even she forgets the truth. This is most evident when she plays "two truths and a lie" with the children in her theater class. She tells this eight year old lie as one of the "truths." She's in deep.
But this isn't the only lie she's living. Dair is an alcoholic in denial. Despite Dair's efforts to hide her drinking, Peyton knows. But given that he has been a recovery addict since before they met, he's fairly sure that she'll not welcome him bringing up her drinking problem.
All of this comes to a head during the week after their best friend, Craig, dies an unseemly death. He's wearing a woman's dress (the very one Dair wore when she auditioned for a role in Othello) and is found to have been on heroin, when he falls to his death while climbing over a guardrail that drops onto a busy road. The thing is, Dair witnesses his death but doesn't recognize him. By the way, Dair's an actress, a natural profession for a liar.
The cast in this case consists of Dair and Peyton, Dair's mother, their next door neighbor Marielle (who was Craig's fiancé), Marielle's son, Mr. Henderson the cranky old upstairs neighbor, two dogs, one cat, one African Gray parrot, as well as the cast and crew that is rehearsing for Othello.
The resolution of Craig's death propels the storyline. It seems more and more to have been murder versus an accidental suicide. But this is not a classic "whodunit" novel. It becomes evident who's the likely murderer long before the "cast of characters" figures it out. Reading this is more like watching Othello's Iago manipulate others for his own benefit and goals than it is about solving a murder mystery.
Somehow during all this, Kittle touches on a wide range of theories and subjects, such as animal/human communication, alcoholism and drug addiction, animal totems, reincarnation and past life memories. While Dair is worried that the only reason that her and Peyton are together is a falsehood based on her eight year old lie, we get the sense that they are just two old souls helping each other out just as they had in previous lives, which makes it a whole lot easier to understand why we care for people even when they are drunks and liars.
But even with this symphony of subjects, the main theme is still communication. As Dair's dad tells Peyton, "Talk to Dair. About everything." As it turns out, everyone is hiding something in this novel. And although it is not spelled out, we get the impression that if animals can communicate, if we can indeed teach ourselves to be receptive to their image relays, then perhaps what differentiates humans from animals is not the ability to communicate but the ability to deceive and omit information when communicating.
Even with as much as I have revealed, there is still far more in this novel. Kittle has a real technique for taking an untouchable subject (alcoholism in this one, AIDS in her previous novel) and making us fascinated with with every word. Like Traveling Light I was unable to put this book down until I was finished.
- Amazon readers' rating: from 25 reviews
Read Chapter One of Two Truths and Lie at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 26, 2000)
"Travel light and you can sing in the robber's face." - JuvenalThree years earlier, Summer had a promising career in New York City as a dancer, then in a moment it is over when she falls from a horse and shatters her ankle. Her career as a dancer was due to the sacrifices her older brother, Todd, made for her when they were younger. When one year after the accident, she hadn't stopped pitying herself, it is Todd that jump starts her life again by making her promise that she will show him what else she can do. While she struggles to figure out how to now make her mark, she teaches at her old high school, an easy commute from Dayton, where she has returned to care for this same brother. Todd is dying of AIDS.
When Summer initially left for New York City with a horse trailer piled high with her belongings, she thought her father mocked her when he said "Travel light." She may have learned who the robber is, but she is yet to learn what it means to travel light.
My first reaction when asked if I'd like to review the book was to pass on it. Essentially, I am not a "caregiver" and don't have much understanding for people who can handle these roles. But, in fairness to the publisher and writer, I read the first chapter on-line. My initial reaction was that the story had potential and at some level it had grabbed me. So I decided to wait another day before declining the offer to review it. As it turned out, FSB did not wait for my reply, they went ahead and sent a copy of the book. Then, I received an e-mail nudge. So again to be fair, I decided I better see if I was going to review it or not. That night I started it. The next day I read nonstop until I reached the end. This book is that good.
There is nothing easy about caring for a loved one that is dying. Most of us find this out as we get older. But this is further exacerbated when the person is dying of AIDS and carries that stigma of homosexuality. In Traveling Light, Todd's immediate family are supportive, but that is not without its complications. Each family member has his or her own very distinct personality, which we find is inevitably burdened with its own "stuff" whether shame, intolerance, guilt, or just sadness. In creating these people and their story, Kittle sets up a light suspense that keep the pages turning. Throughout, she hints at the family history or coming events and when finally she starts divulging the details (e.g. how Todd came out, from whom Todd contracted the aids, etc.) there is satisfying surprise.
Kittle covers a lot of ground in this novel. To get at the core of the prejudice against same sex relations, Kittle adds the outside element of the community through Summer's teaching experience. It's here that she shows how schools (and society) continue to "teach" prejudice and hatred through intolerance and inaction. Kittle also attempts to dispel myths about gay male relations as being violent by portraying a sincere deep tender love between Todd and Jacob. Even as Todd progresses to his inevitable end, Kittle constantly surprises us with the range of emotions (how can one spat with an dying man?), between and within each of the characters.
As it turns out Traveling Light is a very positive, life affirming novel. Of course there are sad moments. My eyes welled up more than once as Todd's disease progresses though its stages, but that's because I liked all of these people. What I enjoy most about reading fiction is getting into someone else's head. By having the story take shape around Summer rather than either Todd or Jacob, Kittle leaves room for us to explore our on views on homosexuality and the whole business of caring for others, otherwise known as love. As Summer learns what it is to love, we learn the secrets to traveling light.
- Amazon readers' rating: from 54 reviews
Read Chapter One of Traveling Light at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Traveling Light (2000)
- Two Truths and a Lie (2001)
- The Kindness of Strangers (2006)
- The Blessing of the Animals (2010)
- Reasons to Be Happy (2011)
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- Official website for Katrina Kittle
- Reading Guide for Traveling Light
- Reading Guide for Two Truths and a Lie
- Reading Guide for The Kindness of Strangerss
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About the Author:
Katrina Kittle has lived in Dayton, Ohio for most of her life and grew up in a home where books were a prize possession. Originally interested in dance and theatre, Katrina studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts and Ohio University, first as a theatre major, then accepting an invitation to join the Honors Tutorial Program in English. She graduated in 1990 with two degrees from Ohio University - a BA in English and a BS in Education. She helped found the All Children's Theatre in Washington Township, Ohio, and also works in education and case management support for the AIDS Foundation Miami Valley.
While teaching high school in Dayton, Ohio, she did volunteer work at an AIDS service organization (for which she now works part time). Traveling Light came out of her experiences there and of a desire to put a face on AIDS for her former students. "I dealt with homophobic students who acted like the disease could never touch them. During AIDS Awareness Week, I passed out statistics about the number of infections and deaths in this area, and I distinctly remember one girl saying, 'Three hundred-and-one, well, that's not very many.' I just wanted to slug her. The difference between 300 and that lonely little 301 was a face and a name. I was initially drawn to writing a story that would put a face on AIDS for them." Traveling Light started as a short story, and was expanded from the brother's point of view in early drafts. When Kittle realized that gay men whose novels and memoirs dealing with AIDS told their stories so beautifully, she changed the viewpoint of her book to his sister, Summer. "What I could offer was a character who could be a point of entry to an AIDS story for a reader who might find the gay male perspective a barrier. I wanted to create a book that would be accessible to readers with views like my former students, as well as ones who would be interested in a story that had gay characters and strong gay relationships. That was my goal--to touch both of those audiences."
Two summers ago she got up at the crack of dawn to drive Warner Books editor Diana Baroni to the airport, never dreaming the job she "got stuck with" as part of her work fellowship with the Antioch Writers Workshop would eventually lead to a two-book deal. "I wasn't going to ask her to read my book, I was planning on playing it cool--but she was so friendly, even at that ungodly hour of the morning." Asked what she was writing, Kittle assumed the editor was being polite, and at the time, Baroni didn't think the book was for her: "I figured I could offer some criticism at the very least, so I gave her my card." A few months later, Baroni received Kittle's manuscript and after letting it sit for four weeks, plunged into the material. "I read the entire thing in one sitting and I was sobbing at the end. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is so good!' At our editorial meeting, I actually started my pitch by saying, "You're not going to believe it--this woman drove me to the airport at a writing conference, I read her novel and I love it!" Baroni was impressed that the strength of Kittle's writing and her well-drawn characters "just stayed with you."
Katrina now teaches 6th and 7th grade English at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, but still tries to accept as many invitations to speak and teach other workshops as she can. She lives in Dayton, Ohio.