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book image Where No Gods Came
A Novel by Sheila O'Connor
University of Michigan Press
$24.00, 180 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8.25 out of 10 stars


To put it simply, Sheila O'Connor's second book, Where No Gods Came, is long overdue. Thanks to Michigan University Press, whose new award series' mission is to publish work that may not be commercially viable, this brilliant, compact novel will be brought to a national, literary marketplace. Having won the inaugural Michigan Literary Fiction Award, judged by Charles Baxter and Nicholas Delbanco, it was chosen by Barnes & Noble to be featured in its Great New Author Program. Nearly thirteen years after Milkweed Editions brought out her first book, Tokens of Grace, a novel-in-stories, Ms. O'Connor may finally get the recognition she deserves.

Where No Gods Came is set on the hardscrabble streets of Minneapolis, where estranged twelve-year-old Faina McCoy must learn to adapt to survive. Placed in the temporary guardianship of her mother, whom she hasn't seen since birth, she is forced of necessity to become the ill woman's caretaker while older sister Cammy lives with her teenage boyfriend. With her father working on an oil rig half a world away, Faina's natural ability to tell stories—to become a chameleon of roles—assures her survival. Despite abuse, exploitation, and denigration, Faina McCoy is a tenacious heroine that ekes by on grace and intelligence. Novelist Maureen Gibbon has called O'Connor's novel "truthful, tough and filled with delicate hope".

Ms. O'Connor knows about characters like Faina. A graduate of the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop, she has worked, among other things, as a Poet-in-Residence. In a recent interview, she wrote "I've met hundreds of Faina McCoys. I know their stories...Displaced children, children in complex living situations often have a great deal in common—generally, they are cast as outsiders and the social rejection adds to their suffering." With this kind of intimate knowledge, one might be tempted to over-dramatize; O'Connor, however, remains a consumate artist, true to her vision of a work that is bleak, truthful, and lacking any overt sentimental overtures. Her eye, a poet's eye, misses nothing. Take, for example, this passage, in which Faina gives her mother a bath:
When I have calmed her with a cigarette and fresh drink, it's time for me to help her with her bath. In the summer, I used to wait outside the bathroom door while she took care of her privacy. Later, she would call for me, and I would help her stumble back to bed. But these days, she can't go far without me. The loneliness is too long for her. I fill the deep tub with hot water, sprinkle in Dreft, hang her silky robe on the brass hook. When she's ready, she lifts her brittle arms like a baby, and I raise her nightgown over her head...Before Minneapolis, I'd never been in the same room as a naked woman, and her body horrifies me.
Above all Where No Gods Came is a novel about resiliency, and hope; that at the end of all the darkness, personal courage and trust prevail; that grace is a story of transcendence, in whatever limited, human form it may take; and that for every Faina of the world, there are a hundred more—girls of fierce intelligence and determination stuck in unfortunate circumstances. It is a story for our times.

Novelist's Biography:
  Sheila O'Connor is the author of the novel-in-stories Tokens of Grace, and has received fellowships from the Bush Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Loft-McKnight, as well as the Tamarack Award for fiction. She teaches writing in the MFA program at Hamline University.

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.