West of Then

Smith, Tara Bray. West of Then: a Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Tara Bray Smith’s story is haunting. Her childhood and subsequent adult relationship with her mother is tragic. What unfolds before you is a young woman’s story about an almost always drug-addicted and sometimes homeless mother who was constantly abandoning her children. Karen had four children with four different men. Luckily for her second oldest, Tara grew up with some sort of stability with her pot-smoking father and his second wife, Debbie. Tara spends most of the book looking and finding and looking again for her mother. What is especially hard to take is that after you have gotten through the 319 pages you realize nothing has really changed. I am not ruining the end of the story by saying nothing gets resolved. There is no ending. Interspersed are stories of Hawaii, past and present, cultural and historical. It’s this writing that makes the entire book come alive.

As an aside – I don’t know if this was intentional or not but Bray does a good job of making her mother out to be an absolute whore and not in the literal sense but in the derogatory sense. She subtly names no less than 14 different men Karen was having some sort of revolving door romantic relationship with throughout the book. Neil, Ron, Owen, Kirk, Eric, Stan, Terry, Ray…and so on. I found it distracting.
The drawbacks to reading a book with no set chronological order or apparent plot is it is really easy to lose your place. I don’t use bookmarks because usually, I can remember what’s going on in the story enough to pick up where I left off. With the chronology as jumbled as it was I found the search for her mother disorientating. Maybe that was the point.

Lines I liked: “He has his studies; I have my missing mother” (p 117) and “The desire for something sweet makes you stupid” (p 243).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Hawaii: memoirs” (p 94).

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