St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)
Column: READERS AND WRITERS
September 21, 2008
The Road to Redemption: Through Her Young-Adult Novel, a Local Author Confronts a Painful Incident from Her Past.
By Mary Ann Grossmann, Book Critic
What does a teenager do when she sees her friend being sexually molested? Does she keep the secret? Does she find the courage to tell an adult, even though she doesn’t know the consequences?
This is the moral dilemma at the heart of Minneapolitan Patricia Cumbie’s debut novel, “Where People Like Us Live.”
Set in Racine, Wis., the story centers on 14-year-old Libby and Angie. The girls become friends when Libby’s family moves into the working-class neighborhood where tough Angie lives in a dirty house with her often-drunk mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Libby’s father, who wants to be his own boss but fails, immediately leads a strike at the factory where he has just been hired.
When Libby surprises Angie and her mother’s boyfriend doing something sexual that she doesn’t quite understand, Libby has to figure out how to respond.
Although “Where People Like Us Live” explores tough issues, including social class and sibling relationships, this is not a grim book. Libby’s family is loving, and there is redemption for almost all the characters.
“I didn’t start out to write a young-adult book,” said Cumbie, 44, whose warm personality is obvious in a phone conversation. “I wanted to write about a friendship in that age group, partly because I find teenage girls’ friendship fascinating. These relationships are often deep, intense and kind of complicated.”
Cumbie says she was partially influenced by reading “Transforming a Rape Culture,” a ground-breaking anthology published in 1993 by Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions.
“Some of the essays in that book are about how you can make a billion laws, but that doesn’t seem to change the culture or necessarily stop violence,” she says. “These authors suggested that it may be more effective to work on an individual or grass-roots basis to raise awareness of sexual-violence issues. I believe powerful stories can do more to break down societal barriers than a raft of laws and legislation. So in some ways, my book is a response to ‘Transforming a Rape Culture.’ ”
The Voice of Experience
Cumbie knows about healing after rape because it happened to her. She was attacked when she was an 18-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater.
“It was late at night, and I didn’t realize I was being followed back to my dorm room,” she recalls. “I never reported it. This is a typical story in that respect. I’d been drinking and flirting at a party, and I felt I must have done something to instigate it. I felt so stupid and ashamed, I couldn’t tell anyone.”
Cumbie went on to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in English and history. She moved to Minneapolis in 1989 with her husband, Sean Doyle, general manager of the Seward Co-op.
Not long after Cumbie moved to Minneapolis, she signed up for a class at the Loft, and the writers center is a cherished part of her life. Thanks to what she learned there, she won fellowships from the Loft, SASE/Jerome Foundation and Minnesota State Arts Board. Her writing has been published in literary journals and anthologies.
“When I look back over the years and all the things I have accomplished, the Loft was with me every step of the way,” she says. “I had taken a few writing classes, but I never knew how to take myself seriously until my first Loft class, taught by Barrie Jean Borich (author of “My Lesbian Husband”). Barrie’s a great teacher and an inspiration to me. In a lot of ways, she showed me that it was OK to be an artist, even though nobody around me had ever tried to do that before.”
Dancing to a New Tune
At the same time Cumbie was taking Borich’s class, she was working with a therapist to begin healing the buried shame and anger surrounding her rape.
“Barrie said it’s sometimes the things that are most difficult to talk about that are the most compelling to write about,” Cumbie recalls. “I decided she was right.”
That was the genesis of “Where People Like Us Live,” which took Cumbie five years to write. Although she got rejections, several publishers and agents suggested she try pitching her book to the young-adult market.
“Then, lo and behold, the Loft had a class on introduction to young-adult fiction,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to go for it.’ ”
Although Cumbie thought her book would be picked up by an independent press, she was “floored” when she got a call from HarperCollins telling her they wanted to publish it.
When she isn’t working on her second novel, Cumbie dances with a Middle Eastern dance group. She turned to what’s known as belly dancing 10 years ago on the advice of her therapist, who said she needed to get out of her head and get into her body.
“I’m so glad I followed that advice,” Cumbie says. “Dance is a very enriching aspect of my life.”
She also loves to cook, testing recipes for Mix, the Twin Cities Natural Foods Co-ops magazine she edits.
“I have foodie friends and writer friends and dance friends,” she says. “I am the luckiest woman.”
Book critic Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5574.
Copyright 2008 Saint Paul Pioneer Press