How is it that it has taken me until now to read Martha McPhee’s brilliant novel, Bright Angel Time? It is a gorgeous, heartbreaking book following the lives of one family torn apart by divorce (The Coopers–of which the protagonist, eight-year-old Kate, is the youngerst) and broken nearly beyond recognition when they merge with The Furey’s. Anton Furey is Kate’s mother’s boyfriend and it is to him that Kate, her two sisters, and their mother run one summer (the father left them long ago to live with another woman). He is not traveling alone, however. With him are his five children and then whatever other stragglers they pick up along the way, drinking, drugging, and running workshops about romantic love, etc.
It is Jane, Kate’s oldest sister, who is the hero. At twelve going on thirteen, she is wise beyond her years (likely from a lifetime of taking care of her mother) and eager to get things back to normal. And in the end, it is her actions which seem to snap her mother just a tiny bit out of her oblivian and set the families on a course home.
This book took my breath away. It is a beautifully written and fascinating tale, yes, but it was the personal connections I made to it that left me bereft and unable to read for several days after I finished it. It wasn’t just that the Coopers are three daughters who feel responsible for their mother and try to keep her safe (especially from her love interests) but that this book so captures that feeling of drifting, of being a child thrust seemingly parentless into the world that my sisters and I experienced. I was also struck by Kate’s fascination with the Grand Canyon (as evidenced in the title), which has been one of mine since childhood (and one I was able to satisfy nearly four years ago to the day when I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for the first time). Finally, I have been dreaming of my favorite cousins since I finished reading this book as they so resembled the wild, free-spirited, yet loving Furey’s.
Putting all of the personal connections aside, this book has enough universal appeal to carry any reader forward. If you have not read it, I hope you will.