Monday, April 1, 2024

REVIEW: The Gathering Girl by Amanda Irene Rush


When she was 12, Amanda’s best friend’s family gifted her a Christmas stocking stuffed with a carton of cigarettes. She was thrilled. The cigarettes meant she would no longer have to steal and smoke her mother’s uncool brand. And the stocking—though it didn’t have her name stitched along the top like everyone else’s—meant, for the moment at least, that she belonged. She hadn’t felt that way since before her free-spirited mother left her corporate-climbing father with 4-year-old Amanda and her older sister in tow. Before her father remarried a woman who never wanted children. Before her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Before Amanda and her sister were left to largely fend for themselves. More than three decades later, with the death of her parents as a catalyst, Amanda began sifting through the relics of her family’s fragile past. She wondered if the chance objects she and her mother and father had held on to— a faded doodle of a girl gathering apples, broken knickknacks, worn family photos and her parents’ journals— might unravel their long-standing and tightly woven narrative and tell a different story. Searching through the eyes of “The Gathering Girl”, Amanda Irene Rush discovers an alternate truth buried within the deepest roots of her family tree. She demonstrates how the untangling of a twisted past can be both beautiful and brutal, and how the journey can ultimately lead to forgiveness.

  • Format: 334 pages, Paperback
  • Published: March 14, 2023 by Publish Her
  • ISBN: 9798986522074 
  • Author website:

My Thoughts

First, let me preface this by saying that I have a personal connection to this story, and this review will be much more personal than usual.

Growing up, the author was my best friend's little sister. She was a couple of years younger than us and had her own group of friends, and oddly enough her big sister and I had a friend by the name of Amy, and little sister Amy had a best friend by the name of Heather. So, we had Big Heather (me) and Little Heather, and Big Amy and Little Amy (the author).

I met the author and her big sister in second or third grade. I was waiting at the bus stop with the other kids and a couple of "new kids" arrived. The older sister was my age, and the younger sister I believe was in kindergarten. It seems like it must have been around the return to school after Christmas break, because in my memory the sisters were wearing winter coats. I mean proper winter coats not normally seen in south Florida where it gets cold a couple of weeks out of the year. The grumpy older sister got mad at the younger one and kicked her, and I yelled at her and told her not to kick the little girl! She defiantly told me that she was her sister and she could kick her if she wanted to! This was my introduction to the girl who would go on to become my best friend; someone with whom I would come to strongly rely on. I recognize myself as someone who is probably on the spectrum, and as a child was more obviously so. I came to have what was probably an unhealthy reliance on Amy's big sister, but that wouldn't happen for some time. We actually didn't become friends for probably a year or so after meeting. She was just mean when we met!

But we did become friends, eventually the best of friends. But I want to avoid letting this become too personal and about me. This is about the book and Amy's story, not mine.

This book is about Amy grappling with the past. About her mother's mental illness, her parent's breakup, her father's estrangement, how these things affected who she would become, and whether her memories of the past and her family were even accurate.

The author walks you through what she pieced together of her parent's relationship, her early years in Ohio, and when her mother left her father and moved the girls to Florida where I met them. Then there is the inevitable mental breakdown of her mother (which the author touches on, but whose memory fails her in regard to the details of this time. My memory of this period is much clearer, and I've filled in some of the missing pieces for her since reading her story), and everything that followed.

This is the story of a fractured family and broken people, and of reconciliation and healing. The story of a girl trying to uncover the past and gather the pieces of a childhood shattered by alcoholism and mental illness.

It's about the loneliness of a little girl in the wake of her mother's mental breakdown and living with a withdrawn sister and a grandmother who generally acted as if her grandchildren were an inconvenience and annoyance (the woman terrified me!)
...As though it shared my fear and confusion at finding myself in the middle of an adventure I did not choose. One where my mother was no longer my mother, and my grandmother liked the orange shell duck more than any of us.

Then beginning another life living back in Ohio with an alcoholic father who probably did his best, but fell short of what his girls needed. Then back to living with a mentally ill mother, through turbulent, reckless and generally unrestrained teen years with lots of smoking, drinking and drugs.

I remember staying over one night after not having seen them for a year or two, me with the big sister and her friends hanging out in her room listening to The Kinks and smoking pot and cigarettes. I was shocked and disappointed to see Little Amy, probably about 12 years of age, smoking with us. Whether she was only smoking cigarettes or imbibing of the pot I can't recall, but her sister just dismissed my shock. "Yeah, she smokes now." I was saddened and disturbed. There had always been a purity about Amy. We had sort of protected her when she was younger and kept her separate from our "shenanigans", and here she was smoking with the "big kids". Her innocence was gone. I quit smoking pot soon after this, and I didn't visit with them much after. Not because Amy was no longer the sweet and pure little girl I had known, but she was representative of a turn that things had taken. I think her sister and I both felt that I no longer fit into their world. Despite the drinking and smoking and sneaking out, there was still an innocence in me that wasn't ready to live in their unfettered world.

For me, this book is divided into BEFORE and AFTER. BEFORE the breakdown I was present, and AFTER the breakdown that I mostly wasn't. As other readers, I got to walk through those missing years with the author to find out what happened to them when I wasn't there. I got to better understand the loneliness of the little girl I knew who was always in the shadows and on the periphery when we were kids. She was the ghost in my childhood that her mother was in her own.
We both had older siblings we had idolized but never wanted to become.
Five words: tender, honest, heartbreaking, hopeful, lonely

My final word: This book was an emotional rollercoaster for me. The memories it dredged up took me to the highest points of my love for my childhood best friend and the bond we shared like no other I've ever had, the lows of confusion and turmoil and fear and dread as my friend's mother suffered a mental breakdown and left my friend at 12 years of age trying to hold together a household, caring for her mother and little sister, paying the bills, driving the car to the corner store for groceries, cooking dinner, making sure her little sister took a bath and got ready for school, and all while trying to keep it secret, knowing the family would be further fractured once anyone found out what was happening at home. Then to understand the loneliness that the author felt through her childhood and early years. She writes honestly of her journey through chaos and instability to a better understanding of her parents and herself. There is an analytical tenderness that perhaps shouldn't be able to co-exist, and through her story I navigated the deaths of my own parents. Her mother wrote in one of her journals:
Someday, I hope my girls will read my journals. Perhaps this simple legacy will benefit them.

Before the deaths of both parents, when they were but a fractured family, they may have all failed one another, but hopefully the author's journey to better understand the past will have saved at least one of them.

Buy Now:

Adult language and situations, drug use and alcoholism, mental illness

My Rating:

The Cerebral Girl is a middle-aged blogger just digging her way out from under a mountain of books in the deep south of Florida.

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