I’m not sure about anyone else, but I can remember feeling stuck as a kid. I was an impatient child (and now I’m an impatient adult). A summer then felt like an entire year. A two-hour trip to the store with my parents seemed to occupy an entire interminable afternoon. There were moments when I longed to grow up. Although being a kid was great, it also could feel like moving against a wall—something hard and delimiting.
For the main character in Anne Valente’s story “The Lost Caves of St. Louis,” out in issue 10.1 of Redivider, being a kid is especially rough—her identical twin sister has gone missing, and although she seems to accept that her sister is never coming back, she’s still left waiting as the adults around her try to soften the truth and as she struggles to feel connected to her peers and family.
“The Lost Caves of St. Louis” is told in the second person and follows an eleven-year-old girl as she and her family try to cope with tragedy. The story opens at the start of the following fall, a few months after the sister’s disappearance, as the nameless main character returns to school. She’s isolated and lonely, unsure of how to interact with her teachers and classmates. She learns in Social Studies about the intricate system of caves that stretch beneath St. Louis, and becomes a little obsessed—she borrows a book from her teacher and eventually befriends a new student named April (a girl with the scars of self-injury covering her forearms, someone as much of a pariah as she is) who shows her the entrance to a cave in her backyard.
This story is so good in part because Valente does such a wonderful job of depicting the darker side of childhood—the isolation, the immobility, the constant awareness of all that’s unknown. We’re so specifically in the “you” character’s present, and as a result, we’re also trapped in the reality that her sister is missing and likely dead.
Valente clearly captures the physical spaces of childhood, and she uses these places to illuminate the complexity of the main character’s situation (and to break our hearts a little in the process). In one of the first scenes where we see the main character interact with someone her age, she’s approached by Lauren Doherty (a character always referred to by her first and last name, a tiny detail that nonetheless recreates the feeling of being in elementary school—the familiarity yet the need to specify exactly who you mean when you say “Lauren” because there are probably two more in your grade).
Lauren Doherty wants to know if she will come to her birthday sleepover, a party we know she doesn’t want to attend, but agrees to anyway. As the classmate leaves, the main character tries to sit on a swing, but burns her legs, and then she retreats into a tube slide, “where the light is muted, a pink glow that surrounds [her] in plastic heat.” Valente’s description of her tactile experience with the playground equipment is surprising yet familiar. I can remember burning my thighs on the black rubber of the swings, the abrupt sting of it, the way my skin stuck as I leapt away; I can remember the static, humid heat inside the tube slides. (Playground equipment: it’s weird, isn’t it?)
Additionally, the playground is where complicated social interaction takes place when you’re this age, and the main character’s reaction to this tense moment is just the move a lonely, overwhelmed eleven-year-old would make. She engages with her surroundings, but as a preteen, she doesn’t use the slide in the way it was intended. (Because what kid would simply sit at the bottom of a slide?) This whole scene is so detailed and focused on the physical that it’s hard to read it and not feel transported to this uncomfortable, claustrophobic moment.
Again and again the main character is confronted with all that she doesn’t know. By positioning a large portion of the story in a school, Valente reminds us that being a child means being told you don’t understand. Sure, as a student you’re learning, but every lesson, every hour of the day is a reminder: come here, let me show you what is only a tiny piece of something larger. Valente puts her main character in three classes in the story’s present—a social studies class where she learns about the caves, previously unknown to her, an art class where she draws her silhouette, and a science class where they’re discussing the solar system, including Pluto a planet which “is in constant danger of collision or scattering.” School is where kids spend most of their time, so it seems natural for Valente to include these scenes, but in doing so she’s able to position the main character in a place of unknowing. The mystery of what happened to her sister hangs over the story, and Valente uses the experience of being a kid in school to make sure that she can’t escape to a place where everything makes sense and is understood.
Outside of the organized lessons she learns at school, the main character must also deal with adults, their obscure etiquette and rules, their nuanced withdrawals, their pity that surfaces in the moments when she is almost outside of herself. Every interaction with an adult in the story results in a strange pressure and exclusion. We know that the adults are trying to protect her, but the only method that any of them seem to have to keep her safe is to keep her away, to insert distance between her and the rest of the world.
After she finishes reading the book on caves given to her by Mr. Kottleman, she approaches him to tell him of the cave April discovered. He starts to tell her that it’s probably not connected to the maze of caves beneath the city, but he stops. She watches his face change. She can see something is taking place, something she isn’t allowed to know. As the reader, we can tell—he doesn’t want to discourage or upset her, the sister that lived, the girl whose life has almost been ruined. Instead of telling her the truth—that the cave isn’t connected—he says that there’s always a chance that it could be, but it seems to pain him, and the main character notices. Instead of connecting with her (or better hiding his lie), he tries to put distance between her and the reality of the world. By the end of the scene I felt miserable for her. She’s trying to learn. She’s sharing a secret with him because of their shared interest in the cave system, but he can’t see her as anything but a child who needs protection.
By portraying some of the more difficult parts of childhood so vividly, Valente gives us a deeper understanding of the main character’s position—and it’s a painful one. She doesn’t know what happened to her sister, she doesn’t know why, and she can’t escape her situation. She’s in a powerless position, and we’re made to feel it because Valente does such marvelous work showing us the ways that being a kid can sometimes feel like being caught in a trap.
I couldn’t put this story down and with each reread found even more to appreciate. Valente is such a talented writer—so go get a copy of this issue and let me know what you think.
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a new series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.subscribe to Ploughshares?