Ellie Sanders mama is crazy; this we find straight off in Tomato Girl, Jayne Pupek’s evocative first novel. It is hinted that her mama is so crazy she keeps a fetus in a jar. And she has spells, odd and scary ones that Ellie has no idea how to deal with. Ellie’s father, who seems to adore her and takes care of both her and her crazy mother, is beset by devils of his own, one of which comes in the form of a beautiful teenaged girl who sells tomatoes to the store that Ellie’s father manages.
The fact is that Ellie, at eleven, has seen more tragedy than a body should have to humanly bear, and yet we know from news stories daily that many many children like Ellie exist in the real world: essentially motherless, fatherless, besieged by problems beyond their years, and forced to cope with things that they are in no way prepared for.
Ellie’s world is that of the Deep South, presumably before integration took hold (although we aren’t told) because the separation between blacks and whites is clear and the old fashioned nature of the store her father works for, the school she attends, and the attentions of the local law to the problems of her family would not be possible even in small town America today. This hazy time period is a bit of a problem, however, even as we are told that the story takes place in the memory of a now-grown Ellie, who, staring at the jars of vegetables she has put up, recalls the horror of a youth gone from merely awry to terribly tragic.
Pupek begins Ellie’s story slowly, almost as if she is reluctant to reveal the horrors at all. Ellie sits and waits for a letter and cash money from her father who has, we learn, run off with the Tomato Girl. As her mother descends ever more into the madness that has taken hold of her, Ellie turns to her best friend Mary for advice. Mary is one of those friends we all had: the one who knows everything, or if she doesn’t, makes up convincing enough lies. (“I may have made better grades,” Ellie says, “but Mary understood all the things that really mattered. She knew about God, the blood curse, lesbians, and even how to tell if two people were in love. I guess when your mother doesn’t have moods, she has time to tell you things.”) For a while she provides Ellie with some semblance of normality, even as Ellie’s life is unraveling before her eyes.
Is it all Ellie’s fault, this unraveling? Unwilling to go to the cellar to fetch something for her mother, Ellie’s mother goes herself and falls down the stairs, badly injuring herself and putting her unborn baby in grave danger. Ellie’s father, blinded by lust for a woman who must be half his age, brings Tess the Tomato Girl into the house, ostensibly to take care of Ellie and him while Ellie’s mother recovers. But too soon Ellie’s mother returns from the hospital and even in her madness she can see what is happening. Ellie’s mother tells a beautiful story about the day Ellie’s father fell in love with her. And then she tells the girl, “I know how your father acts when he is in love.”
Soon Tess and Ellie’s father are taking terrible chances and things disintegrate even further. Tess has secrets of her own, too: an abusive father and a history of epilepsy.
When Ellie is finally left alone with her mother, her dead baby brother, and no one to turn to, Clara, a black woman with magical powers, comes to her rescue. If Pupek were not such an able writer, if she did not set the Gothic tone so convincingly, this might be too much, but Clara turns out to be one of the most winning and wondrous characters in Tomato Girl: completely believable.
Stories told from a child’s point of view, stories of horror and abuse and despair unending, stories with magical characters that help shape lives – those are hard stories to tell, but Pupek pulls it off. Ellie’s story does not have a happy ending but it has an honest one, and Pupek lets us know that Ellie is tough enough to get to the other side of the story, too.