||Soft Skull Press
||Oct 26, 2007
A story of conquest over
over self-determined disability.
Soft Skull Press
Women & Children First Bookstore
Soft Skull Press
As children, Tam and her older brother were swimming when she suffered her first epileptic seizure. He pulled her from the water and was crowned a hero. Tam was labeled “disabled” and never swam again.
Now, in middle age, a lifetime’s worth of control has taken its toll. Exhausted, Tam heads to Maine where, while working on a genealogy project, she becomes captivated with two dead women: an ancestor, Mary Catherine, who died at 33; and a legendary baby rescued by Tam’s lighthouse-keeping great-great grandfather. Through their cloistered, tragic lives Tam relives her own life over and over — until a distant cousin forces her to see herself in a new light. Together, they fabricate a fantasy version of their ancestors’ experience in the remote lighthouse, where it’s possible a shipwrecked baby washed to shore and irrevocably changed generations of lives.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Tam has “rescued” a baby, who was taken from his teenage mother, by sneaking it out from the small seaside hospital. She hides both mother and child with herself at the privately owned lighthouse where her ancestors once lived. There Tam continues her romantic quest to experience her ancestors’ tragedies and heartbreaks, until her alternate life is invaded, the events in her recreation of family history distorted, by the reappearance of her brother, a rescue-hero at the World Trade Center, now suffering from post traumatic stress.
It wasn’t moving, at first — the baby in the toilet. Covered with bluish creamy goo, and the astonishingly neon blue placenta, and more blood. But somehow the head had remained out of the ugly water and bloody mess, and when Tam, using fistfuls of paper towels, pulled it from the bowl and cleared the slime from its face, it sucked a weak bubbly breath.
Time Out: Chicago
When author Cris Mazza looks back at her family’s history, one story rises out of the lineage. Legend has it that in 1875 on Southport Island off the coast of Maine, a lighthouse keeper found two feather beds tied to a box that had washed ashore. Inside the box, he found a live baby and a note from the baby’s mother. That lighthouse keeper was Mazza’s great-great-grandfather, and his story provides fertile ground for her new novel, Waterbaby (Soft Skull, $14.95), a cutting-edge adventure that dives deep into the mind of its protagonist, Tam.
As the story begins, Tam is 46 and three years into retirement after making it big as a Chicago-based broker. She takes off for Maine to help her sister Martha do some genealogical research for the family records. While there, she discovers the story of the shipwrecked baby, Seaborn, and manages to entwine the baby’s family tree with her own.
“I wanted to write a novel that contained, and imagined a fuller version of, the legend of Seaborn,” says Mazza, a creative-writing instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noting that some have dismissed the story as mere myth. “That the story has been passed on, and that it could have happened and that people believed in it, that’s something that lives on in that region’s culture. The fact that the legend’s grown for 125 years—in my opinion, that’s history.”
While Tam forages for genealogical history on the island, she becomes fixated on the mysterious life of her distant relative Mary Catherine, who died in 1899 at age 33 and would have grown up with Seaborn. She develops other eerie obsessions, too, including a fixation on another legend that haunts the island—the town ghost, who supposedly roams the area’s shores.
Tam also must deal with her own haunted past. When they were kids, Tam’s brother Gary pulled her from the water as she suffered her first epileptic seizure. He saved her from drowning and was crowned a hero, but Tam was permanently labeled “disabled.” While illegally living at the lighthouse on foggy Southport for most of the book, Tam descends into a fantastical journey that’s part imagination and part reality. Armed with her laptop and e-mail as the only mode of communication, she keeps in touch with the outside world, but leaves much unsaid. Tam’s untold secrets flood the book’s narrative; many of her confessions are related in deleted e-mails to her sister Martha.
“I was having Tam write e-mails and then delete them, and I realized that was important to the character,” Mazza says. “You get to see what she could have said to her family, what she would’ve said and decides against saying, which you can’t get in a phone call or in regular dialogue.”
Much of what drives Tam is her fear of having another epileptic seizure, a theme not often discussed in fiction. Mazza says the idea came from a talk show. “A woman called in to say her daughter had been diagnosed with epilepsy, and the doctor said that she shouldn’t even take a bath by herself,” Mazza says. “And I remember thinking, Wow, that’s drastic!”
As in much of Mazza’s acclaimed work (her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award in 1992), she takes an unsparing look at the heart of her characters. “I think characters in a book need to have some personal weakness or conflict that they’re struggling with,” she says. “I like it when conflicts come from within—not when a well-adjusted person is just struck by some fate.”
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