Professor Emeritus, English Department, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana
This is the second novel by the author of, an important narrative of the Palestinian diaspora, Scattered Like Seeds. Shaw J. Dallal’s The Secret of Rose-Anne Riley is an altogether different type of novel, but like its predecessor, one that will appeal to a wide spectrum of interests. This novel is a fictional account of four generations of a melting-pot Irish American immigrant family whose first and second generations settled in various locations across the frontier and who started out working primarily as farmers in places as diverse as Illinois, Texas, and upstate-New York, though they rise to academic and business positions through hardwork and study.
The most intriguing and unusual feature of this story is the degree to which the memories and tragic personal history of a beloved grandmother, come to haunt –perhaps possess would be a better word–the consciousness of her grand-daughter Alexia. While her mother Carla pursues a career, Alexia and her twin brother John find themselves more and more in the care of their elderly grandmother, the Rose-Anne Rilley of the book’s title. Rose-Anne is the gentle Grandmother whose violent rape, covered up and papered over, continues to fester like a corrosive wound, finally emerging to darken the life of a beautiful girl in the family’s third generation . Her benevolent care endears her to both children, the twins Johnny and Alexia. Both children love Rose-Anne, but it is Alexia who becomes increasingly her confidante and companion during her final illness.
Among her confidences to Alexia is the account of her violent rape by a young man who was the spoiled son of a wealthy family for whom Rose-Anne did housework. Woven in among idyllic reminiscences of hardship and happy times on the dairy farm where she grew up, Rose-Anne confides to this impressionable young girl, in considerable graphic detail, the circumstances leading up to this assault, the rape itself, and its harrowing aftermath. Before making this confidence to Alexia, the grandmother stipulates that she must keep it a secret, and herein perhaps lies the most destructive aspect of her influence on her granddaughter. The secret includes not just the physical violation, but the even more destructive way it is handled. Rose-Anne wants to go to the police, to accuse her abuser, to put him behind bars, to ‘castrate him’, as she tells Alexia. However, the wealthy family offers money–enough money to save the farm, enough money to put Rose-Anne through four years of university. And against Rose-Anne’s wishes, her mother chooses to accept the money in return for silence.
The novel follows the impact of this toxic secret on Alexia, an impact made more traumatic by the knowledge that her mother Carla is the child born of that rape, and intensified by her promise never to reveal the secret to anyone. Not surprisingly, the trauma for Alexia lasts long after her grandmother’s funeral. In fact, the girl’s pre-occupation with the old woman’s tragic history seems to increase, conditioning the way she views her own sexuality, and making it appear to her that the other members of the family were less loyal than she to her grandmother’s memory. The reader understands that Rose-Anne’s motive for this perhaps injudicious confidence is her apprehension that the attractive young Alexia may be victimized in the same way, unless she understands her vulnerability and remains on her guard. The grandmother could not know how ultimately destructive her toxic secret will prove to be for her beloved grand-daughter. We see Alexia shun normal social life when she begins her university career, having internalized Rose-Anne’s experience and becoming increasingly obsessed with fear of the wholesome young men who want to take her out on dates and get to know her on the pleasant campus where she has enrolled..
The story in the foreground concerns Alexia and her brother as they approach adulthood and prepare to leave home to go to college. But the story in the background begins to take on increasing prominence: Carla learns accidentally that she was the child of a rape, and that her mother had falsified her birth-certificate to conceal this shameful fact. The character of Carla is somewhat enigmatic in the novel: though her husband is devoted and loyal, we feel there is a lack of responsiveness both to him, Michael, and to the children, as Carla pursues an ambitious career in real estate and now turns her rather materialistic and perhaps even narcissistic attention to discovering the identity of her biological father. Against Michael’s wishes, Carla impulsively contacts her mother’s rapist, now a wealthy and respected Bishop and makes arrangements to meet him.
As Carla becomes more determined to pursue favor and possible financial advantage in the eyes of her biological father, Alexia’s alienation from her mother increases. Johnnie, her inseparable twin brother, is torn between his loyalty to Alexia and their grandmother on the one hand, and to his parents on the other. Seeing Johnnie’s ambivalence as disloyalty, and forbidden to share her secret knowledge with other family members, Alexia finds the burden of her toxic secret overwhelming. Ultimately she escapes into suicide..
The story of Alexia’s depression will appeal to teenagers and their parents, especially at a time when teen-age suicides have reached epidemic proportions in many communities world-wide. But the phenomenon of rape and the question of how to deal with it is equally compelling. Compounding the problem of rape is the status of the perpetrator: at the time a spoiled young athlete from a wealthy and powerful family, he has now become an influential member of the clergy. It emerges later, that the wealthy bishope feels compelled to donate a substantial part of his fortune as penance for his violent sexual indiscretion and rape of Rose-Anne. Although this softens Alexia’s anger against the bishop, and forces her to forgive him, it does not fully relieve her own depression, which ultimaely leads to her suicide.
Dallal’s narrative makes it clear that these problems are not merely the afflictions of some under-priliviged minority group, but can occur within the context of decent hardworking people, and indeed the perpetrator is not a street-thug but the spoiled son of a wealthy and prominent family. The question of what kind of support is needed for the victim of rape, and question of abortion in cases of rape, and the question of accountability of the perpetrator–all these issues are raised in the context of this story. Since it is not primarily didactic, the reader never feels he is being lectured to: on the contrary, the book could be used to generate discussion about the way these traumatic events were handled in the context of the novel, and what better ways might have been used to prevent the tragic outcome—both the disintegration of the family, and Alexia’s suicide. Why is the Bishop allowed to escape any real consequences of his actions?
Among the most appealing aspects of the story is the rich evocation of America’s rural past in the stories of her childhood told to Alexia by Rose-Anne. Readers of Rose-Anne’s generation will find a goldmine of their own past–the wood-stoves in the kitchens, the care of farm animals, the kerosene lamps, the frost on the bedroom windows, even the music that was popular in the twenties and thirties of the century, the austerities of the Great Depression and the breaking up of families as young men went off to the Second World War leaving the older generation to cope with the farms.
It is this economic and social history which creates the conditions under which a young girl happened to be employed as a servant in a wealthy home, thus finding herself unprotected and at the mercy of an idle and self-centered youth. A further source of shame which somehow magnifies the shame of the rape is the manner of the loss of Rose-Anne’s father. She actually sees him lift the gun and shoot himself, so discouraged has he become about the loss of the barn and all the life-stock on which their income depends.. Suicide was looked on as a terrible sin, so the loss of her father and the consequent loss of the family farm is compounded by a sense of disgrace. And of course the whole set of economic circumstances put Rose-Anne at risk, like many children of single-parent families, forced to go to work in dangerous circumstances. These circmstances also help the reader to understand why his widow decides to keep her daughter’s rape and pregnancy secret, feeling powerless to stand alone against the established leaders of the community. She is a woman suddenly bereft of her husband and her sons, convinced that public accusations will not be supported by the police, and that she will gain nothing by exposing herself and her daughter to humiliation.
The narrative gathers momentum as it approaches its climax–a scene of rather pompous religious ritual in the chapel at the Bishop’s lavish residence, while it charms the susceptible Carla, is undercut by the acute discomfort of Johnnie who sees it as offensively hypocritical, and is followed swiftly by news of Alexia’s suicide on her campus not far away. The falling action deals with a rupture between Carla and Michael who decides to go in search of his estranged son Johnnie, leaving Carla to her delusions of wealth. This resolution provides a welcome sense of closure to a story which remains in many other respects an open text, unfolding with the haphazardness of real life, with unexpected twists and turns, and the dense unknowability of human motivation.
Conclusion: I strongly recommend this novel to readers of all ages. The author deals with a number of highly controversial contemporary problems in a decorous and tactful narrative. Problems such as rape, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, depression, suicide, inter-generational relationships, clerical sex abuse, and even the current popular interest in adopted or artificially-inseminated children searching forlornly for some contact with their biological parent or parents. Though it contains explosive material, the story is told with great restraint and good taste, and will I think attract an immediate and very receptive audience from every age-bracket. I can see it becoming an instant best-seller.