Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Americans in Space"

Mary E. Mitchell is author of the novel, Starting Out Sideways, a 2007 Thomas Dunne Book from St. Martin's Press. New York Times best-selling author, Elizabeth Berg, said of this debut novel, "... there is a humanity exhumed in this book that makes you feel proud and hopeful about being a human on planet Earth. These days, that's a rare and wonderful thing."

Mitchell applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, Americans in Space, and reported the following:

From Page 69:
“How are you, sweetie?” I ask.

She moved her hand away, stares at her perfect knees. “Okay,” she says, without conviction. Then she looks at me and says, “You want to know what I was thinking about? I was thinking about how I might like to be an anthropologist when I get out of school. But then I was thinking there are probably enough anthropologists in the world already, so why bother?”

“Don’t you think anthropologists are sort of like artists?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” A glimmer of hope lights her dull eyes.

“I mean that every artist or anthropologist interprets the world in their own unique way.”

I watch her legs swing lazily as she thinks about this. “Maybe,” she says.

“So if you decided to become an anthropologist, wouldn’t the world get to see something new, something seen only through Phoenix’s eyes?”

“Through Phoenix’s eyes,” she repeats. “That’s a nice song title.
When I opened my book and read page 69, I thought, Damn! This isn’t what the novel is about at all. For months I have been telling readers that Americans in Space is about loss, and about the long, excruciating road back from loss for a young widow and her unmoored family. The novel’s main character, Kate Cavanaugh, struggles mightily two years after the death of her beloved husband. She cannot reach her angry teenage daughter, who acts out in cyberspace and in tattoo parlors. She cannot get her four year old son to speak in full sentences, or relinquish the ketchup bottle he carries clutched to his heart. She cannot find happiness, despite the best efforts of resourceful friends, an eager love interest or colleagues at work. Her problems are enough to fill 291 pages of a novel, and yet, when I opened to page 69, I found nothing of these problems reflected there at all. Instead I found Kate, a guidance counselor, at her job at the Alan B. Shepard (first American in space!) High School. She is sitting in the school’s courtyard on a cold autumn morning with a very depressed, very beautiful young girl. Phoenix is a member of Kate’s weekly counseling group for mixed-up, troubled students called New Frontiers. My misfits, Kate lovingly calls them.

It is the one area of Kate’s life that seems to work, her weekly efforts with these deeply troubled children. Unlike with her own daughter, Kate feels she can bring comfort and meaning to these young people’s lives. They look up to her and trust her and try not to curse when they’re around her. She has a way of making them believe in themselves, even when they’re feeling most self-loathing or unsure. Phoenix, the girl in the courtyard, especially seems to need Kate’s support. Last year Phoenix swallowed a whole bottle of ibuprofen in a suicide attempt. This year she’s trying out for cheerleading. Kate finds Phoenix sitting in the courtyard, looking somber and confused, just the way Kate feels, the two of them just Americans in space. Maybe page 69 isn’t such a bad representation of this novel after all.
Read an excerpt from Americans in Space, and learn more about the book and author at Mary E. Mitchell's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue