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Book Review: Americans in Space by Mary E. Mitchell

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Kate Cavanaugh needs primal-scream therapy on speed dial. As a high school guidance counselor at Alan B. Shepard High School in Boston, she has more questions about life and love than she has answers.  Kyle and Kate Cavanaugh and three kids are the typical American nuclear family that implode on the death of dad. Now, four Americans find themselves lost in an uncertain space.  Kate suits up for the ride of her life. And must keep what's left of her family.

Americans in Space opens just after Kate finds her husband's heart has given out. He has stopped living and breathing in the bed they shared.  He was just 42.  She blames herself and her kids blame her too. After his death, Kyle is a festive, hungry ghost. He's not really there to haunt — he's rather a radio-like frequency inside Kate's head.  She often tunes into her favorite things where she can hear his voice and feel his smile that comes complete with sound advice.

Mary Mitchell's Kate Cavanaugh is the main character in this novel.  She hates change, but needs to fall  in love again fast. Her daughter Charlotte is a student who attends Shepard High School where they try to avoid each other. Her daughter and the school however becoming unwitting accomplices in Kate's evolution.  Kate needs to evolve. Why? Because she marries right out of college. She shuns manicured nails, chic career, late-night partying in Boston and designer duds for a home in Appleton, where one home looks much like the other.  In this home, life for the kids borders on neglectful.  Her teenage daughter does not help and does what teens do best — guilt-tripping up mom.

The first few chapters  set the stage:  we know Kate is a widow; we know who her best friends are and where she lives, loves and plays.  Shepard High is the stage where the reader expects daily drama to unfold and we are not disappointed.  Mitchell chauffeurs the reader through the daily grind of hormone alley where teens hang out in the hallway holding virtual signs that read "I'm available for mischief."

This is what I like most about Americans in Space — it is a fictional primer for parents who are afraid to look under the bed, afraid of intruding on the unwritten "privacy" laws of adolescence. Exactly where does a parent or guardian draw the line in cyberspace? Not easy to err on the side of caution where it concerns a child.

Mitchell may not be the first writer to openly debate the question but her voice is a soothing one, thus making her novel a must-read for squeamish parents of tech-savvy teens. Teens are smarter than the average parent. They often intuit then make gut-level decisions that are spot on. But will mom or dad listen to the young voices of reason? And when those voices and notes spell out ads that trumpet upcoming misdeeds, not heeding makes for deadly mistakes that cannot be undone.  And the only way of catching the acts, before they happen, often occur in a safe harbor like a novel.  We want to read the book and love the people in it — if and only  if the creator of these characters breathes life into them.  On this score, the author delivers. Her warmth as a writer translates well on the printed page.  We care about her fiction because she cares about her craft.

The second half of the novel's 291 pages captures  Kate's shifting sands of the heart. Will she or won't she connect with one of the two men vying for her attention? Or will she run away?  When the sand settles into a careful colorful Buddhist mandala that Kate reads — its message surprises her. The inflexibility is gone with the guilt and self-loathing. She is innocent of ruining her life and that of her family. She understands that it is far easier to accept human frailty than it is to deconstruct and rebuild it without written or expressed consent.

Americans in Space is a great cold-day-airport-wait kinda friend to have on hand because it is  well-paced, interesting, funny, and a lovely read. While coping with sudden loss is never easy to read about I enjoyed every page, line, and chapter of this modern novel.  A book-length road map which divines a diverse landscape and the shared misgivings that await parents in the 21st century. My only criticism is that while this novel combines the chaos of Kate's personal and professional life I expected more grit and angst from inside the halls of Shepard High… I also wanted more pages to read.  But that's a good thing.  On the other hand, Americans In Space is one author's wonderful take inside the parental beltway.

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