Waifs and Strays: Emma Claire Sweeney, Owl Song at Dawn

owl-song-coverI’m so glad Emma Claire Sweeney put me on the list to receive a review copy of her new novel Owl Song at Dawn. A heartfelt story about love and acceptance, it is also an evocative look at a time and place — northern England in the 1950s — in which, for families like those Sweeney focuses on, these feelings had to be fought for and protected, not just against the callous or prejudiced but against earnest but wrongheaded well-wishers.

The narrator and protagonist of Owl Song at Dawn, Maeve Maloney, is near 80 when the novel begins. She is the proprietor of Sea View Lodge in Morecambe, a bed and breakfast which was her parents’ business before her but has taken new form during her reign, now specializing in accommodations for “disabled holidaymakers”:

We used to take all sorts: the Deaf Choir of Greater Manchester, a wheelchair basketball team, paraplegic windsurfers. But the deaf conductor had been terribly rude to Steph on one occasion and the sports teams never joined in our sing-alongs or attended my craft sessions.

Now their guests are more typically groups like the Aspy Fella A Cappella singers — people who need some extra attention or special arrangements, who sometimes travel with their carers. Maeve’s staff includes Steph and Len, both with Down Syndrome. When talking about them, Maeve still sometimes reverts to the old term “Mongoloid,” which to her is “a lovely word – full of horses journeying across the steppes”: “I couldn’t think why the likes of [Steph’s parents] preferred to lumber their child with a syndrome; why they preferred to honour Doctor Down, who shut people away in an asylum.”

Maeve’s vocabulary may be old-fashioned, but that’s because it comes from her own life-long experience loving someone others believed should have been shut away — her twin sister Edie. Their family does not know exactly what went wrong with Edie, but at birth she was diagnosed with (in the insensitive clinical language of the time) “spasticity and severe mental subnormality, combined with related grand mal epilepsy.” In the face of strong pressure from the medical establishment to put Edie in an institution and focus on their “normal” child, the Maloneys instead stood up for both their daughters — their two “waifs and strays,” as their father fondly calls them — raising them together and giving Edie all the love and care they can for as long as they can.

Being Edie’s sister complicates Maeve’s life in many ways, from the literal effort of tending to her physically to the social challenges of having her along on walks, at church, at dances. Sweeney does not minimize the effort it takes to keep Edie safe, well, and happy, and Maeve is no saint, but she also never betrays any resentment at what her sister’s presence might have meant for her, or cost her. Indeed, when Maeve looks back, her only regrets are linked to failures to give Edie everything she needed — particularly one moment of inattention that had near-catastrophic consequences. Maeve’s parents, too, are not idealized, but their commitment to their “subnormal” daughter never flags. In post-war Britain, their advocacy is shadowed by knowledge of Nazi eugenics, and by the persistence of medical and judicial attitudes that see children like Edie as genetic failures who can only be a burden on their families. But to the Maloneys, Edie is just their other daughter, every bit as deserving of their unconditional love as her “normal” sister.

Owl Song at Dawn tells us Maeve and Edie’s story through flashbacks precipitated by the incursion into Maeve’s present life of Vincent Roper, a friend from their past Maeve has long kept at a distance. His arrival at Sea View Lodge prompts Maeve, unwillingly at first, to open up to difficult memories and choices she has tried to shut away. She has shut herself off emotionally too, as she gradually acknowledges, and underestimated the strength and value of the ties she now has. Sweeney elegantly interweaves the process of Maeve’s gradual re-awakening with pieces of her earlier life. The developing romance between Steph and Len provides a further strand, emphasizing the capacity of love to confound assumptions about what, or who, is normal and how far those assumptions should be permitted to limit people’s lives. Though in some basic ways Len and Steph do have “special needs”, it’s too easy, even for Maeve, to ignore how much we all need each other. After all, aren’t we all, in our own ways, waifs and strays?

There’s a lot of pain and even tragedy in Owl Song at Dawn, but it ends on a note of optimism, even joy, based on the simple premise that differences can bind the human family together rather than divide it. All it takes is patience, generosity, and willingness to understand. In her author’s note, Sweeney talks about her own sister Lou, who “might well look broken” to outsiders. When Lou was born, her doctor recommended that she be institutionalized, but she wasn’t, and now she leads the way “onto the dance floor, throwing back her head in laughter.” “So which of us is really broken,” Sweeney asks: “Lou, who elbows her way between couples, getting the men to dance with her; or me, who looks on, half in apology, half in admiration?” Owl Song at Dawn is a smart, tender, moving exploration of the same question.

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