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Synopsis:

Imagine yourself living in the woods of Tennessee in a crudely built cabin with no electricity. Picture yourself going into a shed (no more than a lean-to, really) to wash all of your clothing by hand in a tub, and than hanging it on a clothesline to dry. Try to imagine what it would be like to cook three meals per day on a stove fueled by wood, rather than gas or electricity, and consider the swelteringly hot summer days with no air conditioning. Could you slaughter a hog, smoke the meat, and store it? Could you can vegetables using a pressure cooker operated without electricity? Make your own soap?

As a woman, can you imagine wearing a head covering each and every day, signifying your submission to the husband who has forced you into such poverty? Can you picture yourself wearing only long dresses — never trousers — and heavy work boots, keeping your hair long because that’s the way your husband likes it?

Lest there be any confusion, this is not a discussion about life as a pioneer or settler in the nineteenth century. Rather, the woman who lived for several years in the late 1990’s in the conditions described above was Ginger McNeil. Her husband, Mike, monitored her cell phone usage, too. Coverage was spotty, at best, but he watched to see if she attempted to get a signal and make a call as she drove off the property. That’s when he allowed her to drive off the property in her beat-up old car by unlocking the gate. Meanwhile, Mike collected disability income and spent his days lounging about, reading the Bible, as his beard gradually grew to his waist.

As the Sycamore Grows is the story of a woman who grew up in a home where the tenets of the Church of Christ were strictly obeyed. So she always felt like an outsider at school and around the neighbor children because she was not allowed to dance, listen to popular music or participate in many other activities, such as cheerleading. The church also taught that marriage was forever — one man, one woman. Divorce was wrong, but allowed under particularized circumstances. However, remarriage was a sin.

Inevitably, after growing up in such a regimented environment, Ginger rebelled and began dating the boy with the fast car and reputation. After a quick courtship, Turner proposed. But just as Ginger’s father had been emotionally distant and unavailable to her, so was Turner. Still, he was ecstatic when they welcomed a son, Trenton. Although Ginger had wanted very badly to be a mother and was devoted to her son, interfering grandparents only helped deepen Ginger’s depression. After a series of affairs, Ginger finally got a job as a waitress and left Turner. She inadvertently, however, lost Trenton when Turner and his parents tricked her into leaving him in their care — and then obtained fully legal custody.

When Ginger met Mike McNeil, he was a married father of two, who claimed that his wife suffered from depression and spent more time hospitalized than at home. Mike told Ginger that he didn’t like the company she was keeping — and quickly became the only company she kept. Ginger told him that she would not continue seeing him so long as he was still married and living with his wife. So later than same evening, he showed up at her apartment with all of his belongings. Although Ginger initially told him he could only stay a few days, they were soon living together in another apartment, as Ginger told herself, “He’s displaced me. This place is ‘ours,’ not mine. What have I done?”

It would take Ginger the better part of two decades — during which she raised two more sons and buried one; moved several times with each location becoming increasingly isolated from family, friends, and community; and endured physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse from Mike, their families, and church — before she would fully comprehend and appreciate the lessons of her childhood, why she became entangled with and stayed with Mike for so many years, and, most importantly, the value of her own self-worth.

Review:

Author
Author Jennie Miller Helderman initially set out in 2005 to write a magazine story about poverty in Alabama. But she encountered Ginger McNeil who, by then, had escaped her life in the woods, graduated from college, and was enjoying a successful career helping other abused women, employed by the same shelter to which she escaped. Five years later, the result of that meeting was As a Sycamore Grows.

To many female readers, Ginger’s story may, at first blush, seem exaggerated and embellished. After all, it is hard to believe that any woman in the late twentieth century could possibly be so fearful and submissive that she would agree to live as Ginger and her family did. But the beauty of As a Sycamore Grows is the straight-forward, balanced manner in which Helderman tells Ginger’s story. And as she does so, the systematic manner in which Mike preyed upon Ginger’s vulnerabilities is revealed.

From the outset, Mike was a bully, determined to get what he wanted. Indeed, Helderman describes how, soon after becoming involved with him, Ginger realized that he was manipulating her and playing mind games. But Ginger quickly felt trapped and powerless to extricate herself from Mike. More importantly, Ginger truly loved Mike and naively thought that the two of them could be happy together. There were, in fact, many happy times during their lengthy marriage. But the tumultuous and potentially deadly course of the relationship takes center stage in the book.

Ginger looked like a prosperous professional woman, yet she told me about living without electricity and eking subsistence from the land. What I saw didn’t jibe with what I heard. And that became a challenge for me, a puzzle to solve. I had no idea the story would sweep me along on a journey of discovery.
~ Author Jennie Miller Helderman on why she was inspired to write As the Sycamore Grows

One of the book’s overriding themes involves religion and the strong role it played in Ginger’s life. Her parents, especially her father, adhered to the church’s teachings without variance. Ginger needed support, assistance, and compassion, so naturally sought those things from her church. Shockingly, the church turned its back on her, actually taking the formal step of withdrawing from fellowship with her. Mike and Ginger were counseled that, because they had both been married before, they should now divorce because remarriage is forbidden. At a minimum, if they were not willing to divorce, they were advised to live like a brother and sister, i.e., without intimacy. Dejected and abandoned, Ginger had no choice but to accept that she would find no solace or comfort from the church or its members. She was devastated. The church’s actions served only to increase her dependence upon Mike.

Another strong theme is the impact of isolation upon the victim in an abusive relationship. As the years went on, Ginger became increasingly isolated, which also increased Mike’s power over and ability to manipulate her. Ginger’s relationship with her own parents was strained and she rarely saw them. For a time, Mike and Ginger lived next door to Mike’s parents. But Mike had learned how to be abusive from his father, who abused Mike’s mother. Eventually, Mike’s relationship with his father imploded and they no longer spoke, with his father referred to as the “old goat” next door. When Mike determined that they would move away from his family, it was to the remote wooded area where they built the cabin and remained for several years, still further removed from any neighbors or community members who might question their way of life or Mike’s escalating and unreasonable control over his family.

Still, there are glimpses of Ginger’s strength even as she endures tragedy. When her oldest son, Trent, took his own life, Mike refused to travel with her to attend the funeral. Ginger went alone, but was joined by a good friend who supported her. Ginger refused to be pushed aside, even though she had no financial means with which to contribute to her son’s burial and her son’s stepmother was determined to usurp Ginger’s rightful place at the service. That peek at Ginger’s true depth of strength brings hope that she will survive her relationship with Mike and flourish.

And that’s precisely what happened. After suffering humiliating and demeaning treatment from Mike — including deprivation of the most basic daily needs like sanitary napkins and dental care, even as he blew money on jetskis — Ginger finally seized her opportunity to escape to a shelter for battered women and their children. As Mike pelted rocks at her car as she sped out the gate and onto the highway, Ginger recalled the telephone number she had memorized when she spied it on a billboard and dialed it, thereby taking the first step out of her past and into her new life.

The story does not end there, though. Helderman details Ginger’s life at the shelter, the manner in which the shelter staff helped her prioritize the tasks that she needed to accomplish and stood by her as she gained independence and confidence, and the remarkable ways in which Ginger persevered in order to retain her new-found identity as a single mother. Helderman also describes the difficulties Ginger’s two sons encountered after leaving the cabin. Ginger had sheltered them as much as possible from the details of her dysfunctional relationship with her husband, and the boys felt a natural loyalty to him, as well as to Ginger, even though, as she made her escape, she gave them the option to remain in the woods with Mike. Most importantly, Helderman interviewed Mike and provides his perspective. Indeed, his commentary is illuminating, revealing his own damaged spirit as a result of growing up in an abusive household, but ongoing denials when confronted with the realities of his life with Ginger.

As the Sycamore Grows is engrossing, in large part because the characters could be your next-door neighbors or members of your own family, church, or other organization. At its core, As the Sycamore Grows is the story of how one woman who lacked self-esteem and a positive self-image became a victim of domestic abuse, but eventually extricated herself from the relationship and started her life anew. Her story is fascinating and inspiring, to be sure.

But the importance of the story upon which As the Sycamore Grows is based transcends that one woman and her remarkable circumstances. The book is a cautionary tale about the myriad ways in which a bully can dominate, intimidate, and control a weaker individual. It is both a warning sign and call to action to any reader who sees herself or someone she loves in its pages. And that is its real value.

What does a sycamore tree have to do with Ginger’s story? When her son, Trent, died, she planted a sycamore tree on the property in the woods, anchoring it in the compost pile in order to secure and nurture it. Returning to the cabin years after her departure, the tree has grown to a height of about fifteen feet and its trunk is strong. She explains to Helderman that she calls it Trent’s tree. “Strong already and still growing. It’s his gift, but it’s really me. It came up out of a compost pile.”

I read As the Sycamore Grows in conjunction with the 2011 Read ‘n’ Review, Outdo Yourself, and Spring Reading Thing 2011 Challenges.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of As the Sycamore Grows free of charge from the author in conjunction with the Pump Up Your Book review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



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  1. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: May 7, 2011 | Semicolon

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