I don’t know how I missed this poignant 2017 novel entitled Rabbit Cake, written by the University of Alabama alumni, Annie Hartnett (MFA in fiction). Set in Freedom, Alabama not far from Auburn, the eleven year old protagonist Elvis Babbitt is trying to figure out life. Her mother has accidentally drowned while sleepwalking or sleepswimming in the river as the family refers to it. But it doesn’t quite make sense to Elvis. Her mother was an excellent swimmer. Furthermore, Miss Ida, her mother’s longtime psychic predicted her mother would take her own life one day. Thus begins, the story of grief and the healing that time can bring as told from Elvis’s perspective. As a very bright little girl, Elvis reports things to the reader that she always doesn’t always understand. You see her wrestling with situations that she doesn’t yet have the maturity to fully comprehend. Elvis grows up fast because of the dysfunction caused by familial traits of mental illness. One reviewer writes, “To write from a child’s perspective with such a believable balance of earnestness and skepticism, emotion and logic is a feat that few have accomplished.” Hartnett partly bases Elvis on herself as a kid, mixed in with Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby. Writing about the love of animals that Elvis shares with her biology professor mother is also based on Hartnett’s love of animals and kindness towards animals.
The central theme is how people grieve differently. My own extended family is experiencing this as well as we come upon the second anniversary of the premature death of my younger brother. Often grief shows up as a little quirky as with Elvis’s dad who wears her mother’s clothes and lipstick around the house. With the exception of this, Mr. Babbitt has the most “normal” route to healing. He is in grief counseling, he learns to be a hands-on father, he even meets a nice lady friend. Lizzie, the older sister, however struggles with mental illness, struggles with violence and the same sleepwalking as her mother. Fortunately Lizzie doesn’t swim in her sleep, but she cooks and eats- and sometimes gets violent when Elvis tries to prevent her from hurting herself. Lizzie ends up being hospitalized several times as she becomes more self-destructive. Elvis fears being like her sister. She is smart enough to know that sleepwalking and suicidal tendencies can be genetic.
Elvis is fortunate to have her school counselor, Ms. Bernstein to help her through the grieving process. Elvis approaches her grief in a very rational way. The counselor gives her a timeline of grief which Elvis uses as her stability. There is hope that the pain and all the questioning of whether it is really an accident or is it suicide will ease over time. Elvis also snitches the DSM FOR KIDS reference book from Ms. Bernstein’s bookshelves. She refers to this book many times in an attempt to understand what is happening in her family. And she is just a kid- trying to muddle through a nightmare situation the best way she knows how. Ms. Bernstein tells Elvis she is not responsible for her sister’s poor choices and that Liz is hindering Elvis’ grieving process. The counselor says, “Siblings of the mentally ill often ignore their own problems, and you’ve been conditioned to believe your needs are not important.” She tells Elvis’s father that Elvis needs some fun extracurricular activities. He signs her up to volunteer at the zoo. This becomes a lifesaver for Elvis. The zoo vet, Dr. Rotherwood takes Elvis under his protective wing.
The Boston Globe calls the book “darkly funny and soulful…unpredictable story of healing.” Darkly funny and soulful- an excellent way to describe this wonderful little book. It’s a great choice for an upcoming vacation.
Ponderings: As an alumni of the University of Alabama, let me brag a minute on the MFA in Fiction program. In a podcast, Hartnett talks of her admission process to the program. The school only admits a dozen or so students into the program each year. She says only two students were from the state of Alabama. The “rest were from all over.” The university flew her to Tuscaloosa to visit the campus so she could see herself there. As a resident of Massachusetts, Hartnett seeing the campus at Alabama was a “smart move” for the university. This book was her thesis.