Mary Anna King’s first six years of life are anything but stable. Three out of her five siblings are put up for adoption, and as a small child, Mary Anna tags along with her mother to meet with potential adoptive parents for each of her unborn sisters. Mary Anna explores the many reasons for her mom’s unwanted pregnancies, and though she’s never certain of any particular one, she is sure about one thing. She’s going to meet those sisters someday, no matter what. Bastards is not only Mary Anna's journey of discovering who her adopted sisters are, but also discovering who she is and how family is defined when it's scattered to pieces.
When Mary Anna is six, her step-grandma, Mimi, shows up at her New Jersey home and whisks the remaining three children away to live in Oklahoma with her and grandpa. Mary Anna’s unreliable father has walked out for the last time. This time Mary Anna’s mom is so broken she cannot take care of herself, let alone her three kids that managed to escape adoption. What starts as a temporary stay at her grandparent's home ends up as Mary Anna’s and her sister’s forever home. Sadly, her brother is shipped back to New Jersey due to behavioral issues, but he manages to stay in touch. Mary Anna’s life with her grandparents is stable, but she spends her childhood wondering if they opened their home out of love or obligation. Mary Anna is also unsure of who she should love, whether the recipient deserves her love, and how love is actually defined.
I feel like I need a diagram to explain Mary Anna’s convoluted family tree, but that’s one of the reasons this book is so special. Mary Anna’s candid prose beautifully sets up the family tree, person by person, connecting everyone together with not only physical characteristics, but also mannerisms and personality traits. As each sister finds Mary Anna, the reunion is both joyous and heartbreaking. Finding one other is balanced equally with many lost years that can never be relived. Mary Anna deftly captures this and expertly describes how her family comes alive, piece by piece, in the faces of strangers.
Mary Anna oscillates between matter-of-fact acceptance and the anguish of a child who is the very definition of the word, bastard. Her radical shifts between acceptance and uncertainty give the memories of her unique childhood a sense of sincerity and vulnerability and proves that what she went through was enough confusion and trauma to last a lifetime. I’m glad she didn’t feel the need to finish the memoir with a happily-ever-after feel. It's completely believable that she will spend the rest of her life getting to know her sisters and forever questioning her parent's strange behavior.
Because this book was so beautifully written and compelling I read every single word, including the acknowledgements. And it was there, in the acknowledgements, that I found the most beautiful line, “To my editor . . . You made it possible for there to be a place in this world where my siblings and I can be together, in some small way, forever.”
If you are looking for other books about extraordinary people who flourished from difficult, strange and/or disturbing childhoods, check out All Over but the Shouting by Rick Bragg, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, or When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood.