Letter To My Daughter: A Novel by George BishopLetter To My Daughter: A Novel by George Bishop

Letter To My Daughter: A Novel

byGeorge Bishop

Paperback | January 25, 2011

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A fight, ended by a slap, sends Elizabeth out the door of her Baton Rouge home on the eve of her fifteenth birthday. Her mother, Laura, is left to fret and worry—and remember. Wracked with guilt as she awaits Liz’s return, Laura begins a letter to her daughter, hoping to convey “everything I’ve always meant to tell you but never have.” In her painfully candid confession, Laura shares memories of her own troubled adolescence in rural Louisiana, her bittersweet relationship with a boy she loved despite her parents’ disapproval, and a personal tragedy that she can never forget. An absorbing and affirming debut, Letter to My Daughter is a heartwrenching novel of mothers, daughters, and the lessons we all learn when we come of age.
George Bishop holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he won the department’s Award of Excellence for a collection of stories. He has spent most of the past decade living and teaching overseas in Slovakia, Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, India, and Japan. He now lives in New Orleans.
Title:Letter To My Daughter: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:176 pages, 7.94 × 5.24 × 0.47 inPublished:January 25, 2011Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345515994

ISBN - 13:9780345515995

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Read from the Book

Chapter OneMarch 22, 2004Baton RougeDear Elizabeth,How to begin this? It’s early morning and I’m sitting here wondering where you are, hoping you’re all right. I haven’t slept since you left. Your father says there’s no sense in phoning the police yet; you’re probably just blowing off steam, and you’ll be back as soon as you run out of money or the car runs out of gas, whichever comes first. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, he says. What with the way you spoke to me last night, it would take more forbearance than anyone’s capable of not to react the way I did, and besides, it wasn’t even that much of a slap.Still, I blame myself. I keep seeing the look on your face as you brought your hand up to your cheek—the shock, the hurt, then the cold stare that bordered on hatred. When I heard the back door close in the middle of the night, I thought to myself, Well. There she goes. But it was only when I was standing on the driveway in my nightgown watching the taillights of my car disappear down the street that I understood just how bad this has become.I’ll try not to insult you by saying I know how it feels to be fifteen. (I can see you rolling your eyes.) But believe it or not, I was your age once, and I had the same ugly fights with my parents. And I promised myself that if I ever had a daughter, I would be a better parent to her than mine were to me. My daughter, I told myself, would never have to endure the same inept upbringing that I did. I would be the perfect mother: patient and understanding, kind and sensible. I would listen to all my girl’s problems, help her when she needed it, and together we would build a bridge of trust that would carry us both into old age. Our relationship—it seemed so simple then—would be marked by love, not war.Well. Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, do they? Sometimes when I’m yelling at you for coming in late, or criticizing your choice of friends, or your taste in clothing, or your apparent indifference to anything having to do with family or school or future, I hear my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth. My mother’s very words, even. In spite of all my best intentions, I find myself becoming her. And you, of course, become me, reacting the same way I reacted when I was your age, revisiting all the same hurts that I suffered, and so completing one great big vicious circle of ineptitude.I want to stop this. I’ve thought and thought, and I’m not sure how to go about it, except maybe to make it a rule to do everything that my mother didn’t do and not to do everything that she did—a crude way to right the wrongs, no doubt, and not altogether fair to my mother, who on occasion could be a decent person.But one thing I’ve realized that my mother never did—and this was perhaps her greatest failing as a parent—the one thing she never did was to give me any good honest advice about growing up. Oh, she gave me plenty of rules, to be sure. She was a fountain of rules: sit up straight, keep your legs together, don’t run, don’t shout, don’t frown, don’t wear too much makeup or boys will think you’re a tramp. But she never told me what I really wanted to know: How does a girl grow up? How does a girl make it through that miserable age called adolescence and finally get to become a woman?This was something I thought I might be able to help you with. I always pictured us sitting down together and having a talk, mother to daughter. You’d take your earphones out, I’d turn off the TV. Your father would be out running errands and so we’d have the whole afternoon to ourselves. In this talk, I would begin by telling you, as straightforwardly as I could, the story of my own adolescence. My intention would be not to shock or embarrass you, but to try and show you we’re not all that different, you and I. I do know what it’s like to be your age: I was there once, after all. I lived through it. And hearing the mistakes I made, you might learn from them and not have to repeat them. You could be spared my scars, in other words, so that the life you grow up in might be better than the one I had. Today, I thought, would be a good time for us to have this talk, your fifteenth birthday.As nice as it sounds, that probably isn’t going to happen, is it? I think I made sure of that last night when I slapped you and drove you from our home. I could hardly blame you now if you don’t want to listen to me. It’ll take more than apologies for you to begin to trust me again.So what I’ve decided to do is that while I’m sitting here waiting for you to return, I’ll write down in a letter everything I’ve always meant to tell you but never have. Maybe a letter is a poor substitute for the talk I always wanted us to have. But it’s a start at least, and I hope you’ll find it in yourself, if not today then sometime in the future, to accept it in the same spirit that I write it. Think of it as my birthday present to you—something that my mother never told me, but that I’ll endeavor now with all my heart to tell you: the truth about how a girl grows up. The truth about life.I’m on my third cup of coffee now and there’s still no sign of you. Your dad’s out back mowing the grass like nothing ever happened. I’m not going to get all panicky, not yet. It’s still early, and I intend to keep my mind from imagining the worst. But I do hope you’ll be back in time to spend at least some of your birthday with us. I do hope you’re okay, Liz.Chapter Two“Begin at the beginning,” Sister Mary Margaret always told us.The beginning of this, I suppose, is 1969, when I was your age, a freshman in high school. We still had the farm then—you know, the old house in Zachary where your Mams and Gramps used to live. Zachary wasn’t like it is today. It really was the sticks then. I often felt we might’ve been living on Mars for all the contact we had with the rest of the world. Our house was at the end of a gravel road, a mile and a half from any other home, and I mostly hated living there. I was only a farm girl in the sense that I could ride a horse and, if forced to, I could milk a cow. But as a teenager, generally I wanted nothing to do with cows and horses and alfalfa crops. I went to school, read magazines, and watched The Partridge Family on TV on Friday nights, suspecting that everyone in the world lived a more glamorous and exciting life than I did. Probably a lot like you.Your grandparents were Baptists, as you know, and certainly more strict with me than I’ve ever been with you. They were what, if you were feeling generous, you might call conservative. If you were feeling more honest, you might call them narrow-minded and racist. Mom loathed The Partridge Family—thought it was a disgrace that a single mother would tramp around the country with all those long- haired kids in a painted school bus. And Dad—well, your grandfather loathed the blacks. Sorry to say.The schools in Louisiana were just then getting integrated, if you can believe that. I’m sure I’ve told you this before. Nineteen seventy was the year all the white students from Zachary High and all the black students from Lincoln High were to be mixed up together at one school. You can imagine the commotion this announcement caused, especially among people like your grandfather. There were rallies, the National Guard was called in, the KKK was called in . . .And my parents began talking of sending me away to Catholic boarding school in Baton Rouge. Better that, my father said, than letting me spend one single day sitting side by side in a classroom with those “god damn coloreds.”Now here’s the part I never told you about, at least not in any detail. You’ve only known him as “a boy I grew up with,” but he had a name. It was Tim Prejean.Tim was seventeen, a senior at Zachary High School when I was a freshman. We met—or I should say, we first spoke—at the Freshman- Senior Get Acquainted Dance. I was standing with my girlfriends near the bleachers in the gym, all of us in our pressed bell-bottoms and platform shoes, when he came over and asked me to dance. “Hey, um, Laura,” he said, or something to that effect. “Wanna dance?”I was surprised he knew my name. We rode the same bus to school in the morning, and I’d seen him in the cafeteria, but we had never before openly acknowledged one another. Tim wasn’t one of the more popular boys at school. His shoulders were too narrow and his neck too thin, and he went in for the geek clubs like the Eagle Scouts and Ham Radio Enthusiasts. But he had wonderful dark brown hair that hung down low over his forehead so that it almost covered his right eye, and on the night of the Freshman-Senior Get Acquainted Dance he wore aftershave and a blue blazer over a dashing white turtleneck. The song, I remember, was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies—a dumb song, and not an easy one to dance to. Still, he was a senior, and I was a freshman, and there were crepe paper streamers and colored lights overhead—probably someone had spiked the punch, too—and taken all together, it was enough to make our meeting that night, no matter how clumsy, feel thrilling and romantic.We began dating, although we didn’t call it that. We sat together on the bus going to school. We sat together at lunch. We sat together on the bus coming home, and then we talked to each other on the phone in the evening. When we could, we met at the Greenwoods Mall on the weekends. It was always a little awkward because he had his friends and I had mine, and there was the two-year age difference between us. But the biggest problem was his family.The Prejeans weren’t “landowners,” as I had been taught to call our own family. The Prejeans came from Cajun stock, and anyone who spoke any French in Zachary in those days was considered little better than black. “Swamp rats” my father called them, or worse, when he was joking with his farm buddies, “bayou niggers.”Tim’s father, Jack Prejean, owned a dusty radio and TV repair shop in downtown Zachary that hardly anyone visited anymore—anyone in this case meaning white folks like us. His shop was on a mixed street, as it was called, and most of his customers were black. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Prejeans lived in a camping trailer parked in a clump of woods at the far edge of Zachary, out past where Kleinpeter Dairy used to be. By most outward appearances, in other words, Tim’s family lived up to the stereotypes people like my father had of people like the Prejeans.But the Prejeans, I knew, hadn’t always been this poor. They had once lived in a tidy two-bedroom house within walking distance of the elementary school. Mr. Prejean’s radio and TV repair shop had once done a respectable business, too, before Greenwoods Mall was built and people started vacating the downtown. But it was Mrs. Prejean’s disease that finally and truly ruined the family.This was before Tim and I began going out together, and I only knew the Prejeans insomuch as everyone knew everyone else in Zachary in those days. But even I knew about the disease. That was how people whispered about it: “the disease.” It was, I’d heard rumored, syphilis, and what little I knew of that made it sound especially ugly and obscene, something dimly associated with soldiers and black people and Frenchmen. Mrs. Prejean—Suzy—made occasional outings into town during the early stages of her illness, and a Suzy Prejean sighting was always the subject of gruesome telephone gossip among our neighborhood moms. The school bus passed the Prejeans’s house every day coming and going, and I would sit pressed by the window watching for her ghostly figure hiding behind the white curtains, wondering what the disease looked like, imagining the house itself to be pale and radiant with sickness.Jack Prejean didn’t have any medical insurance, and a year of hospital bills took all his money and most of what he owned. When his poor wife finally died, in a wild display of grief and love he sold their house to pay for her funeral. It was a huge affair, with an extravagant velvet-lined brass casket laid out on the altar among an astonishing array of flowers and candles. There was a full choir, with an organist brought in from Baton Rouge, and a whole gang of priests and servers in red and white robes swinging censers. After the service we followed a sleek black hearse and three rented limousines to the cemetery, where we watched as the beautiful coffin was lowered into the ground below an elaborate white marble memorial of a life-sized woman in classical dress reaching out to pluck a rose from a vine. The Suzy Prejean funeral was such a big event in Zachary that year, in fact, that people who barely knew the Prejeans, people who didn’t really give a good damn about them—people like my mother— turned up in their best Jacqueline Kennedy outfits at St. Aloysius Catholic Church to be a part of it. Funerals were especially popular in those days.The extravagant service, though, still wasn’t enough to redeem the character of Jack’s wife in the eyes of the town, or at least in the eyes of my parents. Even when we found out it wasn’t syphilis but ovarian cancer that had killed Suzy Prejean, my parents still figured, in their own mean way, that the Prejeans had got what they deserved.“All the flowers in the world can’t buy salvation,” was how my mother put it.

Bookclub Guide

1. Mother-daughter relationships are the crux of this novel. How are these often complicated relationships portrayed? What differences, if any, do you see between the different generations, i.e., between Laura and her mother and between Liz and Laura? Do these portrayals reflect your own relationship with your mother? How?2. Liz’s side of the story is never presented in the novel. What impressions of her do you get from Laura’s letter? Do you think Liz and Laura have a relationship similar to Laura’s relationship with her own mother?3. Laura writes this letter to Liz in hopes of breaking the cycle of distrust and miscommunication that she experiencedwith her own mother. Do you think that this letter will have the  effect that Laura would like it to? Do you think that writing this letter makes Laura more sympathetic to her own mother? Do you think that writing this letter was the right thing for Laura to do after her daughter ran away?4. Laura waits until Liz is fifteen to tell her the truth about her own teenage years. Do you think it would have made adifference if she had shared her story with Liz earlier? What do you think Liz’s reaction to it will be?5. Laura knows, even before their disastrous meeting, that her parents disapprove of her dating Tim. How do you thinkthis affected her attraction to him and her devotion to their relationship?6. Do you think Laura’s parents did the right thing by sending her away to school? What do you think their motivationswere when they made the decision to send her away? Ultimately, did Laura’s experience at Sacred Heart make her a more or a less dutiful daughter?7. When Tim tells Laura that he has enlisted in the army, he claims he’s doing it for her. Do you think he and Laura both truly believe this at the time? Should Laura have asked him not to go, as her older self thinks she should have?8. Laura makes a scrapbook for Tim of everything she has been doing while they’ve been apart because she wants toshare everything with him. She says, “If you had to choose the moments that best represented your life, what wouldthey be? The small actions that pass almost without our noticing them, yet that we spend most of our time doing;aren’t these in fact the real stuff of our lives?” (p. 56) Do you agree with Laura? How would you answer her question?9. Sister Mary Margaret tries to help Laura and ensures that she receives Tim’s letters. Why do you think she putsher own job in jeopardy to help Laura? Do you think her transfer to another school was appropriate?10. Laura refers to herself and her group of friends at Sacred Heart as the “charity cases.” Do you think Laura’s status remained this way throughout her high school years, especially after she found her niche on the newspaper staff? To what extent is this experience universal for high school students?11. Laura starts to feel disconnected from Tim after not seeing him for a very long time and as she becomes more involved in life at Sacred Heart. And later, she stops reading Tim’s letters, as they become more depressing and pessimistic. She says, “I couldn’t take on the burden of being his lifesaver, too, his one and only hope” (p. 115). How did you feel about Laura’s behavior toward Tim? Did your view of her character change? Why or why not?12. In his final letter to Laura, Tim wonders whether or not she is in agreement with his dream of what their future would be like, and says that, regardless, the thought of her helped him get through each day and be “a little bit kinder or a little bit braver” (p. 124). Do you think Tim thought Laura would still be waiting for him when he returned? How important are beliefs like this, even if false, during times of extreme duress?13. Laura and Tim are young when they first meet, and over the course of their courtship both of them grow and mature in different ways. Do you think this is an accurate representation of first love?14. Laura agreed to go the senior prom with Chip, the fellow journalist that had been pursuing her despite her relationship with Tim. Laura is unfaithful to Tim with Chip, and Chip eventually stops talking to Laura after this. Laura doesn’t blame Chip for  his reaction, and is very hard on herself for her behavior. Do you agree with Laura’s take on the situation? How do you think Liz will react to hearing this story about her mother’s past?15. Laura sees her decision to get a tattoo in memory of Tim as an inspired moment. “It was as if the act had been there all along, in my mind and in my body, only waiting for this moment to be realized” (p. 126). Do you think this wasan appropriate way to honor Tim? What do you think Laura’s decision to get a tattoo of lines from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet and to name her daughter after this poet really represents to Laura?16. Laura refers to Liz’s father as she frets about Liz’s disappearance, and describes to Liz what he is doing while they are waiting for her to come home. As you were  reading, did you think that Liz’s father would be either Tim or Chip? Who do you imagine Laura ended up marrying?17. In the last scene of the novel, Laura is finishing her letter to Liz when she hears a car approaching. Do you thinkthis is Liz coming home? Why or why not?

Editorial Reviews

“A first novel of immense power.”—Pat Conroy“Guaranteed to keep the tears flowing . . . destined to be a popular choice for the Nicholas Sparks crowd.”—Booklist“Gripping . . . [George Bishop] somehow gets into a teenage girl’s head and roams around there like a native. You believe in Laura; her voice never hits a false note.”—Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)“Before you sit down to read this book, put aside a few hours or else you’ll miss some appointments. You will be pulled into every paragraph.”—Clyde Edgerton, author of The Bible Salesman   “George Bishop writes Letter to My Daughter with a keen eye, an open heart, and a lot of love. I am sure I will return to it again as a cautionary tale and a parable of forgiveness.”—Adriana Trigiani, author of Lucia, Lucia and Brava, Valentine