By Daryenne Wickliffe
C.H. Armstrong promises a “tale of tragedy, love, murder, and above all, the conviction to never stop fighting.” She delivers—I kept track. I thank Armstrong because the short prologue—don’t skip it!—grabbed my interest. I immediately had access to Victoria, our protagonist, through a letter written in her presumably last dying weeks or months, to her grandchildren. Victoria’s opening sentiment, “I’ve heard you refer to me as ‘the meanest woman you’ve ever known,” and her last sentence, a request, “Remember me not as your hostile and overbearing grandmother, but as a woman who refused to be a victim,’” sandwiched just enough information to hook me into reading at least the first couple chapters at the whim of my own curiosity.
Armstrong took advantage of this curiosity and pulled me into Victoria’s life immediately. My heart went out to Victoria, who suffers loss at a younger age than anyone should have to. Like many of us that experience a traumatic life event, at any point in our lives, Victoria changes. As a child experiencing loss, she becomes guarded and suspicious. Armstrong made me worry, and wonder, if Victoria would shed her defenses and dread what else she will possibly have to survive.
Armstrong skips Victoria’s journey through her teenage years, which helps keep the pages turning, and brought me back to meet her in Oklahoma, ten years later. I enjoyed Armstrong’s heavy focus on plot, but never felt cheated out of well-developed characters. Through Victoria’s eyes I met a kaleidoscope of people—funny and caring, charming and protective, manipulative and hostile, innocent and loving. Victoria’s voice resounded through my head as I read, making it easy to hate and love as she does.
Though the intensity of my experiences pale in comparison to hers, I found it easy to relate to Victoria. In Victoria, I saw a piece of myself and of many strong women (men, too) that I know: a drive to be independent and self-sufficient. Her drive and her discomfort with the selflessness of those that support her, is an internal battle Armstrong portrays extremely accurately throughout the novel. Like many of us, Victoria often feels like a burden, someone who doesn’t deserve the good things that come her way.
As I think is often typical for those of us who get used to surviving and refusing to complain while we do—ranging from the little things, like hosting your crazy second cousins who show up unannounced, to the big things, like a death in the family—the good things look suspicious. How could a good thing remain untainted after the hidden stresses and tragedies of life that plague your every turn? In my waking life, I have experienced this doubt, but caught in Victoria Hastings’ story, I had to shed my own barriers and beg Victoria to just believe in the thoroughness of the good when it sporadically comes her way.
As I read, I wished and wished, hoping Victoria would hear me, to just accept the kindness, to just let herself be loved and protected. I finally had to reflect on myself, after I had already been reading way past my bedtime, about how often I don’t give myself a chance to enjoy the range of good things that happen to me regularly. A stranger opening a door, a friend calling to tell me that she loves me just because, a boyfriend sending flowers because he’s far away and I had a rough day, are all things I initially resist. I resist the softness they spur in me. I not only feel that I don’t deserve those rays of sunshine, but I let myself believe, like Victoria, that a hard exterior makes it easier to get through a day, not to mention a lifetime of lows that often seem to overpower the highs. Armstrong makes it easy for you to wish Victoria happiness in those moments, however fleeting they may be.
At every turn Victoria hits a speed bump of catastrophic adversity. I would be doing a disservice to give away the plot events that make Victoria who she is on her deathbed. I will say that her strength is impressive. With every twist and turn she survives. The backdrop of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression keeps the amount of tragedy she experiences believable, never too over-the-top. Although Victoria’s extreme trauma does not discount the tragedies I have experienced, the events she has survived and the choices she was forced to make are ones that I likely will never have to experience, giving me the luxury to have a good cry and then come up with five great things that happened to me, even on a bad day.
To give a fair warning, her journey through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression will leave you heartbroken, almost blindsided, if you are as hopeful as I was. Anyone who loves a good rollercoaster of fiction will barely be able to put this novel down. Armstrong allows you to judge Victoria for yourself, deciding if she’s as mean as her grandchildren say or if there really is more to Victoria than her grandchildren could fathom. I challenge you to read this quick page-turner, and take it one step further, applying your hope and empathy for Victoria’s struggle to the ones you may be experiencing.