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Book Review: Leaving Yesterday by Kathryn Cushman

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What business could a police officer have with her except to bear the bad news that her son Kurt has been found dead, Alisa Stewart wonders as Detective Thompson’s car turns into her driveway. But a few minutes later she is saddled with an even greater burden as she discovers her 21-year-old drug addicted son is wanted for questioning about a murder. When he, joy of joys, calls home a few days later with the news that he’s been in rehab – and for a while – she reasons it couldn’t be him, could it?

In Leaving Yesterday Kathryn Cushman combines what Alisa finds in a box of Kurt’s things with old frictions between Alisa and her estranged husband, the need to keep up appearances at her church and, above all, the determination that her son will have the new start he deserves to give us the tug-of-war tale of a mother’s love.

The story, told in first person by Alisa, has a rapidly thickening plot. Pressure on her to look good in her position of women’s ministry leader mounts even as her relationship with her husband Rick deteriorates and questions about Kurt multiply. She finds she can be most herself with her neighbor Lacey, a retired lawyer who is canny, pragmatic and a mistress of rationalization. Cushman takes Alisa and the whole family through some tough situations and decisions in a book that is hard to put down.

Character-wise I found myself with mixed feelings about Alisa. Though I sympathized with her as a mom and understood her mother bear impulses, there was something Barbie-dollish and plastic about her, too. She came off as shallow in her role as wife and women’s pastor, and smug as a public speaker. My favorite character was her 10-year-old daughter Caroline who was completely believable with her bouncy ways and excitable, dramatic clinginess. Alisa’s husband Rick rang true as well – even though he was a bit of a downer. Jodi and Monte were recognizable and fun as aging hippies. I wasn’t sure what to make of Kurt. He was sweet and genuine on the surface but showed just enough deviousness to keep me wondering, through most of the book, just how genuine his reformation really was.

Cushman does a good job of bringing up some weighty themes even as she weaves this entertaining story. No mother will be able to read this book without asking herself if she would she go to the lengths Alisa did if she were in the same shoes. The story touches on other issues of parenting as well, like permissiveness, tough love and the possibility that parents drive their kids to self-destructive behaviors with dysfunctional parenting. Cushman draws our attention to God the Father as the greatest example of a parent. The story also probes the issue of guilt.

For a hard-to-put-down read that will prompt you to take a thoughtful look at your role as a parent and as a child, Leaving Yesterday is an excellent choice.

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