Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Small Damages by Beth Kephart

"You aren't happy," Estela says.
"I can't be happy," I say.
"Look at me, Kenzie."
"I'm looking at you, Estela."
"Do you know your own heart?"
"I don't know anything."
"Go," she says, "and think. And don't come back until you know."

Small Damages tells the story of a young woman who gets pregnant and is sent away to have her baby.  The story is set outside of Seville, Spain in 1995 but begins in Philadelphia.

Her father died suddenly in September of her senior year as a result of a heart attack leaving Kenzie and her mother to pick up the pieces of their life in Philadelphia. Kenzie was very close to her father who was a photographer. She admired her father because he chose to be a photographer in spite of the disapproval of others including Kenzie's mother. After her father's death, Kenzie's mother does not cope well and Kenzie feels like a "half orphan". The one day her mother announces she is starting her own business, Carlina's Catering. She packs away all of her Kenzie's father's photographs, cameras and albums into boxes which are stored in the basement. His clothes are taken to Goodwill and his favourite chair is moved to the guest room. She joins This leaves Kenzie angry and disoriented.

Further turmoil ensues when Kenzie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant during her senior year. Neither her boyfriend, Kevin Sullivan nor her mother are supportive. Her mother, realizing that something is wrong asks Kenzie, "What have you done?"  and when she learns of the pregnancy tells her "I'm calling Dr. Sam. We're going to fix this." But Kenzie refuses, telling her mother that she cannot force her to have an abortion.  When Kenzie decides to continue the pregnancy her mother, considering her irresponsible and determined that they "...can't let anybody see what she's done" makes arrangements to send her to Spain.Kenzie says that "...she wouldn't help me, and in the end, she said, it was Seville or nothing, and I chose Seville."  Her mother chooses Spain because she has a  friend Mari who married a Spaniard and who knows of a couple wanting a baby. So Kenzie is shipped off to Seville for five months to have her baby and then to return to college.

As for her boyfriend Kevin, a baby was never part of his future. In a flashback, Kenzie remembers the day she confirmed she was pregnant. Late for her period and trying to ignore this fact, she does a pregnancy test at the pharmacy. When it is positive, she is overwhelmed and scared and calls Kevin. However Kevin ends the call before Kenzie can tell him, promising to call her back. When she needs him most, he's not there. Later he comes over and Kenzie tells him. Instead of comforting her and accepting some responsibility, Kevin points out that she has planned to attend Newhouse School of Public Communications and that he has Yale "and everything he had to be on account of everyone else." He asks her "what are your choices?" leaving her feeling like the pregnancy is her problem. He tells her the baby is only a half inch and that she doesn't have to continue with the pregnancy, but Kenzie tells him the there's a part of her dad in her baby. The day before she leaves for Spain, she asks Kevin to come with her to Spain. He refuses telling her that she doesn't have to go through with the pregnancy.

So feeling abandoned by both her mother and Kevin, Kenzie arrives Seville and met by Miguel who drives to his ranch in a cranky old car he calls Gloria. The ranch, called Los Nietos is where Miguel raises bulls for bull fighting. Also living at the ranch are a cook, Estela and Esteban who is a young man around Kenzie's age. Estela tells Kenzie she will teach her how to cook. Esteban doesn't live in the house and seems at first to be somewhat reclusive. Kenzie is distraught at having left her old life behind because pregnancy changes everything. "'s yours, and no matter what you do, you've done a big thing that stays with you a lifetime."

Estela sets out to cook a huge meal for a man, Luis, who is expected to arrive shortly. Kenzie learns that this man is Miguel's uncle and also Estela's friend. However, Luis does not arrive alone but with a group of people whom Estela calls the Gypsies of Benalua. They include Angelita, Joselita, Bruno, Rafael and Arcadio. Furious at the arrival of the gypsies Estela retreats to her room. Kenzie asks Esteban why Estela hates the gypsies but he only tells her she has her reasons.

Estela brings Kenzie a letter from Kevin but once again Kevin disappoints her.  Although it's written by Kevin it reads like a group letter from her friends, telling her how they all miss her. When Estela advises her to write her boy back, Kenzie tells Estela that she has no plans to respond and that she knows nothing about what it is like for her. Estela advises her to "Know your own heart first. Be careful." Distraught over the letter, Kenzie has had it. "That's it today; I can't stand it. I can't stand being here, on my own, invisible but also growing larger...Twenty-one words, and a bunch of we's, like I'm on some holiday. Like all I need out here in the desert of Spain is a lame group hug from the shore." She walks away from the ranch.

She is found by Miguel who tells her everyone has been looking for her and that he promised her mother he would look after her. Miguel takes her to Puerto de Sevilla and shows her the Necropolis in the hopes of calming her. Later Esteban brings Kenzie dinner and tells her about his past and how he came to live with Estela and that they are taking her tomorrow to meet her baby's adoptive parents, Javier and Adair. Slowly Kenzie and Esteban begin to form a friendship. He is kind to her and takes her riding on his horse, Tierra. Gradually learning about Esteban's life and what happened to Estela when she was young and in love leads Kenzie to rethink her choices. But it is Estela's story that finally crystallizes Kenzie's feelings for her baby, leading her to make begin to make her own decisions about her life.


Small Damages was in some ways a difficult read because initially Kenzie's voice is awkward and stilted. Her story is told in pieces, sometimes in the present, sometimes in flashback, giving the reader only a partial picture of what has happened in the past and what her current situation is. Eventually Kephart weaves together all the threads of this poignant tale. At its heart is a young woman confronting a life-changing event - an unexpected pregnancy, and offered little support when she makes the choice to continue the pregnancy. Instead, those who claim to love her focus on keeping the pregnancy a secret. Kenzie has lost her father and now experiences emotional abandonment by her boyfriend and her mother. In fact Kenzie's mother is so deeply in denial that when Kenzie asks who is adopting her child, her mother tells her not to call "it" her child.

Thankfully, Estela steps into the void, to mentor and mother Kenzie because as it turns out she was in a similar situation years ago. Estela who is an accomplished cook, is determined to teach Kenzie. She is a woman with a huge heart, having taken in Esteban when he was orphaned. It is Estela's loving care that brings about growth in Kenzie. Estela reveals her life of regret at giving up her own child under very difficult circumstances. This helps Kenzie discover what her heart has known all along - that this baby matters to her.

Kephart gives hints of Kenzie's attachment to her unborn child from the very beginning of the novel because Kenzie identifies almost immediately with her baby. She's taken a health class in Grade eight and remembers what she's learned. Throughout her narrative, she refers again and again to her unborn child.

"I choose a pastry from the tray -- raisins, white frosting, a rising yellow marmalade, and then I'm back out on the streets, thinking of you, tiny as a finger curled, and fed."

When Miguel refers to the adopting parents Javier and Adair as the parents of her child, Kenzie internally balks at this. She tells her baby, "Your dad plays lacrosse; he plays forward. He has dark hair, green eyes, a crowded Irish smile. He's always going somewhere..." 

Thinking of her morning sickness which has now passed, Kenzie remembers "But everywhere is the flail of you, your necklace of bones, your hardly skin, your fingernails, you already have them."

When she remembers the day she took the pregnancy test Kenzie states, "Eight grade health. The baby like a pea, a lima bean, like a see-through ocean of living. Six weeks, I thought. Maybe seven. And the baby and the cord still growing...Elbows at six weeks. Digits. Eyes on the sides of the head."

While Kevin is attempting to convince Kenzie that their baby is insignificant because it is only a half inch, Kenzie knows the truth - that this baby is already forming and developing. And she matters.

Forced to chose between having an abortion and staying at home or having the baby and going to Spain, Kenzie tells her baby she chose to go to Seville because she could already imagine a future with this child, even if others could not. "I chose Seville, because in my head I could see you; you were already a film that was playing...Call me an idiot. Call me selfish. A nothing half inch. But you weren't that to me."

When she's with Adair, she tells her that she's having a girl. "It's not that I actually know, I guess. It's just something I feel. Something inside." As Adair shows her the nursery they have prepared for the baby, Kenzie realizes this is her child's future and she's not a part of it and it hurts. "Suddenly it's all here; it's the future. It's you in Adair's arms, at the window, looking down on the streets of Santa Cruz, bouncing up and down beneath the dangle of clowns, looking part like Kevin, and part like my dad, and all like who you are, against her skin. The future is here in the room, and I catch my breath, and it hurts to breathe, and I can't."

Small Damages is another wonderful novel by Beth Kephart. She tackles a difficult subject with much sensitivity. While it might not seem very realistic that an eighteen year old girl can be forced to travel to Spain to have her baby, Small Damages reminds us that pregnant women are often bullied, abused and forced into making choices they don't want. An eighteen year old girl is financially vulnerable and one who's pregnant is especially vulnerable emotionally and physically. Kenzie, after allowing her mother to make some of her choices, takes control of her life by the end of the novel, recognizing that no matter what choice she makes, someone will be hurt. But she has to take that chance for herself and for her baby otherwise she may face a lifetime of regret like Estela.

Small Damages is well written, with interesting characters and an exotic setting. Readers will be pleasantly surprised by the twist at the end of the novel, one that completes Kenzie's transformation from a girl who found herself unexpectedly pregnant to a young woman in control of her destiny.

Book Details:

Small Damages by Beth Kephart
New York: Philomel Books        2012
293 pp.

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