Joan Cusack Handler's adolescent self narrates short vignettes, diary-like entries, in her memoir of growing up as an Irish-American Roman Catholic in a predominantly working class neighborhood in the Bronx (NY) in the 1950s. Twelve year-old Joan is a bright, sensitive girl who believes that "Jesus counts on me to come see Him at Mass as much as possible..." Joan--self-conscious, awkward and plagued by nervous ailments--is a misfit who stands five feet eleven and a half inches tall, wears a size eleven, quadruple A shoe, and is often mistaken for being older. The journal offers Joan a safe place to purge feelings on subjects ranging from the father-son relationship between God and Jesus, sin, the Eucharist, obedience, purgatory, lying, honoring her mother and father, snitching on her siblings and her thoughts about some of the quirky nuns and kids at school.
Young Joan has three siblings, most notably a brother who is a bully. She is fiercely devoted to her father, a devoutly religious man who works hard and likes an occasional whiskey, and her mother, who is a no-nonsense disciplinarian and tows the line on the home front. A beloved aunt, a nun, visits the family weekly and indulges in Blackberry Brandy and likes to drive past all the pretty houses in the upscale section of town, and she also expresses high hopes that Joan will someday join a religious order. This disparity of a familial culture anchored in the practice of religious faith versus the tug toward secular interests makes it hard for Joan, who wants "more than anything... (to have) a clean and pure soul," to navigate her own way in the world in this gentle, gracefully told, coming-of-age tale.
Cusack Handler's prose reverberates with evocative imagery, insight and emotion, conjuring not only the physicality, mystery and allure of the Roman Catholic faith of the 1950s, but also the authentic intensity and vacillation of adolescent feelings. The story, constructed in slice-of-life fragments and steeped in the present tense, deepens the intimacy of this well-drawn, psychologically astute narrative.
Confessions of Joan the Tall by Joan Cusack Handler
CavanKerry Press, $21.99, Trade Paper, 9781933880334, 246 pp
Publication Date: November 13, 2012
Note: This book was provided for review by TLC Book Tours