, poet Maxine Kumin’s most significant excursion into the novel, is a taut and compelling work which skillfully traverses public and private themes. It insightfully explores the social tensions between Jews, Europeans, and African Americans in the 1960’s, as well as the more perennial antagonisms between men and women. The novel revolves around the emotional experience of its chief character, Lucy Starr.
When Lucy, an assured, well-connected woman of early middle age, abducts the poor African American boy Theodore, it seems a very unlikely action. In the course of the novel, Kumin sketches in for the reader the circumstances in Lucy’s psyche and biography that would precipitate such a rash action. Lucy has been married briefly and has been quite successful in her vocation, but she has never really found a permanent anchor. At first involved with Theodore simply in the role of educational consultant, she begins to become fascinated with him because he actually needs her help. With Theodore, unlike in her other relationships, she can feel strong; she is the great benefactor, the giver of form and purpose. In return, Theodore supplies a focal point in her life, a motivating center.
Lucy plays an ambiguous game with the other tutelary forces in Theodore’s life—his Aunt Alberta and his teacher, Mrs. Poston—and indeed with Theodore himself as well. She strives to demonstrate that she knows what is best for him, that her training and background will save him from the cycle of poverty that threatens to encompass his family. Yet a possessiveness lurks within Lucy’s altruism. The reader senses that Lucy seeks Theodore as compensation for some emotional void in her own inner life. Although an adult and a "leader," Lucy at heart is still somewhat of a child. For example, Lucy believes that her daughter, Cindy, swims far more easily in the sea of reality than she does herself. Cindy is on closer terms with the world than her mother, who has resided in it so much longer.
Meanwhile, Lucy has a parallel involvement with German-born academic Berndt Hoffmann. At first, these relationships seem dissimilar, as the intensely sexual character of Lucy’s relationship with Hoffmann differs radically from her parental and protective stance toward Theodore. In both cases, however, she is seeking external supplements in order to buttress her self-confidence. In pursuit of the satisfaction offered by these unusual relationships with someone else’s child and a married, exploitative man, Lucy ignores relationships with a greater possibility of being stable, such as those with her daughter and with Dan Gibbs, an African American man who is romantically interested in Lucy and concerned about her welfare.
Lucy finally perceives that Hoffmann is a sadistic, domineering adulterer whose pseudo-aristocratic, pretentiously intellectual charm cannot adequately conceal his endemic human flaws. It is against the background of the April, 1968, assassination of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that Lucy fully perceives the error that she has made with Hoffmann. King’s assassination serves as a symbol of the sudden manifestation of all the psychic and societal tensions slowly percolating beneath the surface of the narrative. Most crucially, it serves to remind Lucy that, in the ongoing struggle for racial justice so rudely marred by King’s brutal murder, her abduction of Theodore is self-serving and hypocritical. She resolves to return Theodore to Aunt Alberta and, perhaps guided by Cindy and Dan, to seek a more stable life.
Most of the book is presented through third-person narration approaching events from Lucy’s point of view. This voice is plain and direct, allowing the reader a fully rounded look at Lucy’s predicament. Daringly, however, Kumin offers as well a glimpse inside Theodore’s consciousness. In a first-person interior monologue, Theodore offers comments on his own personal situation. Rife with misspellings to ensure their authenticity in the mind of the reader, these monologues show a young boy confused about his situation, overly credulous of adults who say that they have his best interests at heart, and awesomely gifted. By presenting Theodore’s voice in this way, Kumin allows the reader another window on the action of the book, constructing a dual perspective on the events of the plot and therefore giving the book a more open-ended texture. Later, it would become more politically controversial for a white writer such as Kumin to attempt to reproduce the rhythms of African American speech so exactly. In the era in which Kumin wrote the book, however, it was perceived as a noble attempt to bring underrepresented speech idioms into written language. In any event, the tensions involved in representing Theodore’s speech mirror the tensions between the agendas of white women and African Americans that constitute most of the book’s thematic structure.