Inspired by a true story, Peter Rock’s fifth novel is the spare, haunting tale of a father and daughter attempting to carve out an independent life while pitted against a society decidedly hostile to their eccentric choices. It’s a strange kind of love story, inspiring us to ponder large questions—what it means to be a responsible parent, and whether, in the modern world, the tension between the urge to live a solitary existence of rugged integrity can be reconciled with the implacable demands of civilization.
When the novel opens, Caroline, the precocious 13-year-old narrator whose voice Rock skillfully channels, is living with a stern but obviously loving man we know only as “Father” in a vast nature preserve called Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. They occupy an improvised dwelling, where Caroline learns geometry and chess and combs the pages of an encyclopedia, simultaneously honing her survival skills. She imbibes the lessons taught by her father’s heroes, icons of individualism like Thoreau and Emerson whose epigrams are threaded through the story.
The pair is arrested after a jogger stumbles upon their hideout, and the authorities send them to a horse farm, where he will work while Caroline enters a public school. But it’s clear they’re not meant to exist in what amounts to captivity, and soon Father engineers their escape. They ascend into the wintry wilderness of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, whose harsh beauty Rock evokes in economical prose, but quickly are overmatched by the conditions they confront. Events soon force Caroline to make her way alone in the world, fortified with only her native common sense and the teachings her father has shared with her.
My Abandonment is a teasingly ambiguous tale that leaves our speculation about Caroline and Father to linger in the air like the smoke from a dying campfire: is their relationship empowering or toxic? Are the true lessons children learn from their parents the ones those parents intend to impart? These questions, and others equally challenging, make this novel a thoughtful one that readers will savor.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.