Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson

When I first started reading Asta in the Wings I thought of another Tin House book Salvation by Lucia Nevai.  Both have central characters who are girls raised by less than ideal mothers and who are adopted by odd but caring surrogate mothers.  Both stories focus on the transition from one world to the next that is involved in being taken from your family and placed elsewhere.

But despite their similarities they are quite different.  If Crane Cavanaugh in Salvation comes from a clearly neglectful to the point of abusive home, Asta Hewitt is raised in a less clear cut situation.  And that is where the story lies.

Here is PWs one sentence description:

Seven-year-old Asta grows up in rural Maine in the late 1970s, where she and her sickly nine-year-old brother, Orion, are kept locked in their house by their crazy mother, who fills their heads with tales of the plague-ravaged wasteland waiting outside their door.

At first you think perhaps their mother was just eccentric, and emotionally unstable, but not a clear threat to the children’s ultimate welfare.  But soon you realize that as creative and intelligent as the kids are, they are surviving and growing despite their mother’s actions rather than from her care.  She loves them but is not equipped or able to be a parent.

Once circumstances force Asta and Orion to explore the outside world it becomes that much more clear how warped their life inside the house was; imaginative and intimate in many ways but warped.  The story, however, is about how the two children come to grips with this childhood and try to relate to their mother moving forward.

One thing that Asta in the Wings does share with Salvation is the strength of the narrators voice which, IMO, carries both novels.  Asta is precocious, innocent, curious, vulnerable, loyal, remarkably evenhanded and self-assured.  She is the type of character that keeps you reading.  Watson skillfully evokes Asta’s childhood using a first person narrative by an indeterminately older Asta.

There isn’t a great deal of plot or suspense involved.  There is some tension as you wonder what will happen to Asta and Orion – and for a time Asta’s relationship with Leon, the young man who lives upstairs in her Aunt’s house – but for the most part the story plays out on an emotional level.  Asta’s attempts to make sense of the world as she finds it drives the novel; her relationship with her brother and mother foremost among her concerns.

Watson uses this exploration to describe childhood: the sort of passive-aggressive behaviour of boys of a certain age (alternately cruel and sweet); the socialization of school with teachers and peers; interacting with adults besides your parents; etc.  Asta’s has all this to deal with plus the challenge of somehow keeping her family connected despite the events that are pulling them apart.

And this is what emotionally anchors the story: Asta’s love for her family.  She may begin to understand more fully that her mother and brother have “issues” that will need to be overcome and dealt with, but the bond she feels with them is greater than these challenges. She wants to grow and learn and live her life but she doesn’t want to leave her family behind to do it.

Ultimately, Asta in the Wings succeeds because of Watson’s skill in creating a character like Asta and in giving her a voice that somehow captures and illuminates childhood.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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