Claire, the smart girl gazing out the windows of the classroom, holds both all the best answers and enough self-belief not to have to seek affirmation by dominating the conversation.
In her English class, where Emily Dickinson is the current topic, Claire daydreams her time away until Mr. Perzan challenges her, encouraging one of her odd offerings-keen, succinct and truthful. Mr. Perzan respects this reclusive girl, sees she is far more clever and deeper than most, likes her for that, and devises class work that helps her claim her gifts.
Personal tragedy has caused Claire to repeat her senior year at a different high school. Earlier, her mother’s successful third suicide attempt compromised Claire’s ability to attach to others. However, she managed to make a single friend - a best friend - in high school in Providence, R.I., only to be devastated when he disappears on her. She was the last person to speak to both of them and in her mind she firmly believes that people’s view of her is a distorted wondering; how was she involved? Hoping for a fresh start, her father and Claire relocate to Amherst, Mass.
In “Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things,” Kathryn Burak delivers an atmospheric coming of age story haunted by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson’s imbedded poems and Claire’s poetic responses create a lyrical mood that might have bogged down this story if not for the mystery component. What really happened to best friend Richie DiMarco? Overall, Burak’s delivery on her death theme is both artistic and audience-sensitive.
In Amherst, Claire’s father, professor Salter, nonchalantly tries to shoo her back towards “normal.” He scans her closet, asking “Don’t you have anything pink or yellow?” Wanting her to shop for anything other than more black clothes, he cautiously slips J. Crew catalogs into her backpack. He requests she begin reapplying to colleges. He hesitantly prods her to make friends at her new school and is blessedly shocked when a six-foot tall “smiley” girl, Tess, pairs up with Claire. Claire is even more shocked; she feels that having any kind of friend is “remarkable.”
Claire, whose mother raised her on Dickinson’s poetry, grows obsessed with the Dickinson home museum in Amherst. She routinely sneaks in through a window at night, writes inspired journal entries and works on an English paper that asks “Imagine the last moment of your life and there’s a fly buzzing.” The student teacher from her class, Mr. Tate, follows her there surprising her and they dart away from the museum alarm with Claire wearing Dickinson’s dress.
This startling complication fosters another strong relationship for Claire. Fascinated by her writing assignments, Mr. Tate pours a lot of personal energy into understanding Claire’s purpose and sense of self. The author has Mr. Tate quickly finish his teaching practicum so he can move into a closer role; he becomes Claire’s friend, Sam.
Now she has two friends she can count on to interrupt her ruminating, help her rebuild trust with others and assist her in resolving compounded grief.
Burak’s subplot having a 21-year-old student teacher negotiating time and space with an 18-year-old high school student is topical to youth literature and capably explored. Sam escorts Claire to Providence for Richie’s one-year death anniversary memoriam. Her father requests she not go - Richie’s father is still too angry -but she plaintively explains that she was Richie’s only friend. On the night he disappeared, Claire was late to meet with him and Richie went on alone to meet a nameless man he only knew through the internet. Claire had interrupted her mother’s first two suicide attempts, been too late to stop the third attempt and finally too late to accompany Richie. When his dead body is found in a canal, he can’t be determined as either a suicide or a murder victim. At this point in the narrative, earlier obscure action and motivations become much more coherent and cohesive; readers will appreciate the clarification.
Burak’s Claire is a fully nuanced teen whose “normal” individuation concerns have been conflated with horribly traumatic events far beyond her control. Claire’s dark, introspective inner world and Dickinson-like withdrawal from the outer is fully justified. Yet, given her circumstances, Claire is painfully sane and there is a prickly, yet joyful redemption in watching her tentative return to the pleasant fun of attending street fairs with Tess and coffee dates with Sam.
By story end the “thing” between Claire and Sam has crystallized; they have sorted out the events of Richie’s last night alive; and Claire uses her newfound ability to ask for help to return Dickinson’s dress. Last, finally agreeing with Tess, Claire realizes that not only is she not “damaged,” a thing with feathers perches in her soul.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.