Millie Crossan is the narrator of Claire Fullerton’s Mourning Dove. When Millie was in her teens, her mother moved the family from Minnesota back to her native Memphis after her divorce.
Millie’s older brother and hero is Finley, eighteen months her senior. She looks up to him, follows him, feels secure in his care. “His presence was one part security blanket, one part safety net, and two parts old familiar coat conformed to fit my size after years of wear.”
They loved their father, who was much more involved with them than their mother. But he was an alcoholic who had trouble giving up his addiction. His death, as well as his addiction, had a profound influence on both children.
When the family arrived in Memphis, Millie’s mother, Posey, melted right back into her role. But Millie and Finley felt like outsiders until they got the hang of the culture of keeping up appearances at all costs.
Part of the novel is a coming-of-age story. Part of it is historical Southern fiction set in the seventies and eighties. Part of it is a nature-or-nurture question exploring how two close siblings can come to such different ends.
We learn early on that Finley is no longer with the family. As the story unfolds, we see his unraveling, leading to a tragic end.
I rarely have trouble “getting” the point of a book. But I did with this one. I searched for interviews with the author to try to gain a little more insight. She says here that the book started as a poem and then was transformed into narrative nonfiction before she turned it into a fictional saga. Since Claire, like Millie, moved from MN to Memphis and was raised by “the last of the great Southern belles,” I wonder if she had a “Finley” in her life. She shares in this interview what she wants readers to take away from the book, “That it’s not what we’re handed in life that matters, it’s how we handle the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”
This review helped me understand Finley a little more, especially this line: “When a child with intelligence and sensitivity is reared in an emotionally unstable household marred by tragedy, he may direct his intelligence toward destructive habits and pursuits.” Millie, by contrast (though she was not unintelligent or insensitive), keeps her feelings to herself. Her mother and her culture don’t encourage heartfelt openness. But Millie’s other relationships are somewhat stunted.
I was also a little confused because I had thought this was Christian fiction. But it’s not. Posey’s spirituality is only the socially acceptable kind, Millie has no use for God, and Finley goes the opposite direction, becoming a cult leader.
The ending left me a little flat at first, because it seemed there was nothing redemptive, nothing hopeful. Of course, in real life, tragedy doesn’t seem redemptive or hopeful at the time. And even if we can see ways God used it, after time has passed, it still hurts. But in books, usually there’s something to be gleaned from the events rather than just the fact that tragedy happened. I reread the beginning and the ending, and was caught by this sentence: “Every chord their father ever played in this room went out into the universe to ring forever, because music never dies, and they were born with it inside them.” A loved one’s influence lives on after them.
Have you read this novel? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.