Occasions of Sin
by Sandra Scofield


W.W. Norton & Co., 2004. ISBN 0393057356.
Reviewed by Carolyn Blankenship
Posted on 03/30/2004

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

Sandra Scofield has written a beautifully evocative memoir that captures the essence of that most mysterious relationship—the one we have with the being that carried us in her body and brought us into the world, our mother. Is there anyone who knows her mother's secrets? Who understands what she felt and experienced, what fears she faced, what triumphs she claimed as her own? Ms. Scofield's memoir drew me deeply into reflections of my relationship with my own mother, set me to wondering about all the unknowns, made me wish I had asked more questions of her.

Occasions of Sin tells of a young girl growing up Catholic in West Texas in the fifties with a chronically ill mother, a devoted, opinionated grandmother, and a vague, absentee father. Without blinking or flinching, she records the agony, the ennui, and the unintentional cruelty of being a teenager. She touches that primordial collective chord that leads directly back into our own experiences, so that each incident, each emotional upheaval connects with the reader at a visceral level. Though my Pagan-Protestant/public school upbringing couldn't have been more different than Ms. Scofield's devout Catholic/convent school life, her emotional honesty and attention to detail brought me right into her experience and allowed me to see and feel things along with her. She writes about her first boyfriend:

"There were only a few things to do on a date, but they were new to me. I loved getting ready. I put together outfits and ran in to see what Mother thought. I took some hems up, let others down. She tugged and adjusted and picked off lint. She gave me money to buy mascara and new lipstick. Friday nights Larry and I usually went to the teen center. The last dance was always romantic and I anticipated his suggestion that we go somewhere to park. Maybe he would say, 'Want to take a drive?' My friend Rita had said I shouldn't agree to go past the city limits. Girls who did that went all the way in more ways than one. We could park by the football field, or at the construction site of the new high school—places everyone knew. There would be other couples in other cars, and the sense of someone nearby was like a phantom chaperone. Sometimes a police car might drive slowly by, but if things were quiet, the cops never bothered anyone."

The women's relationships in this memoir are deep and complex. A long-held secret colors and confuses Sandra's family life. She puzzles over her father's detachment, her beloved grandmother's harsh judgmental attitudes, her mother's rebellious anger. Her struggles to be holy, to be lovable, and to make her mother proud, echo poignantly through everyone's childhood. Her grief, anger and yearning are palpable when her world is turned upside-down at her mother's death. She says, "When I think of being a little girl, it always ends that day, a blip of fool's innocence all out of place in my fifteenth year, the day after Christmas 1959; that was the last time I thought the people I loved could rescue me from anything."

This is a rich story, full of love, anger, grief, mistakes, forgiveness and wisdom. It is written with almost shocking honesty but without bitterness or excuses. It left me feeling deeply connected to my own childhood and teen years, grateful to have been reminded.

Sandra Scofield is the author of seven other novels: Gringa, Beyond Deserving, Walking Dunes, More Than Allies, Opal on Dry Ground (a National Book Award finalist), A Chance to See Egypt, and Plain Seeing.

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