What kind of childhood can a little girl have when she frequently watches her mother being dragged away to receive shock treatment therapy for schizophrenia? Allison Adelle Hedge Coke's memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, tells how her mother's schizophrenia and its ineffective treatment tears apart her family and her life.
Ms. Hedge Coke uses her Native American backdrop to add depth and dimension to her memoir and exposes a society intolerant of Native Americans. Her poetic prose immerses the reader in a world not only of mental illness and paranoia, but also of pride in her Cherokee and Huron heritage, as evident in this passage: "My father recounted tales of rich black soil and luxuriant flora greening the topsoil quilled with lavish tree trunks and topped with a canopy of leaves and pine needles thickly spread about all over this great place we originated from."
Because she is the main focus of her mother's paranoia, Ms. Hedge Coke is forced to leave her family's home at a young age. At first she goes from friend to friend, sleeping wherever she can, but later she resorts to hitchhiking back to the land of her Native American heritage, North Carolina. The memoir follows her journey from Arkansas, where she escapes from racist children who throw rocks at her, to the point where she nearly overdoses on drugs.
At the age of seventeen she marries a Native American who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. They make a living working in the vegetable fields on a reservation. Ms. Hedge Coke says these are the best days of her life—but they don't last. Her husband begins to show signs of paranoia, reminding the author of her mother's schizophrenia. Her marriage ends and she journeys to California, into another abusive relationship.
Despite the bleak circumstances, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer ends with hope. Ms. Hedge Coke is able to forge a life for herself in American society and, in a tremendous act of courage and forgiveness, helps her mother find competent help for her mental illness, bringing the book full circle, a healing circle.
Sometimes the most captivating stories are told from the pen of an adult, through the voice of a child. This is one of those stories. But this is not only a story of survival against insurmountable difficulties; it is also a story of finding one's heritage, a heritage snatched from the arms of an honorable and proud people.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is the coeditor of Voices of Thunder and It's Not Quiet Anymore. Her book Dog Road Woman: Poems won the American Book Award.
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