Title: "Secrets of the Dark Closet"
Author: Gayle Larson Schuck
Publisher: Christian Faith Publishing Inc.
This story of Bessie Kloubec begins in Iowa on May 1899 on the eve of her 11th birthday. She goes to bed, happily thinking of the morning with "Happy Birthday" greetings from her parents, the fragrance of spice cake with thick brown sugar frosting and perhaps a present or two.
However, suddenly about midnight she is awakened by the sound of her father riding away and her mother beaten and battered in their bedroom. Her childhood has ended.
Bessie's story is told in first person as it takes the reader through the turmoil of her life with her five siblings, one being an older childlike brother who has "fits," all living in fear with their mother and an abusive alcoholic father. Bessie, however, remains brave and tries valiantly to hold her family together.
Her one reprieve is school, which she loves but, one day, her father abruptly shoves her off the wagon as it's leaving the yard. She's only in the sixth grade but her formal education has ended.
The premise of the dark closet is that most older homes had this little area off the kitchen that was too small to store anything large, not even winter coats, so it becomes somewhat of a catch-all for seldom used odds and ends. However, Bessie is often tormented by the dark closet of her heart. There lurks the guilt that she isn't good enough to prevent the bad things happening in her family, such as a scandalous divorce.
With the guilt comes anger and resentment of her father, plus the shame she feels about her older brother. Watching over Joe, a childlike epileptic who often causes friction in the family, is one of her responsibilities. She loves him and is devastated when her parents send him away to the State Home for Feeble-Minded Children, but feels guilty relief when he's no longer around.
"Secrets of the Dark Closet" is not a gloomy and sad story. Rather it is upbeat and shows the resilience of a family in tough times. Bessie has an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with whom she spends many happy times. Her Aunt Annie gives Bessie a wicker sewing basket, and once, when he has given up alcohol for a time, her father gives her a little lace head covering, cherished items that are mentioned throughout the narrative.
Bessie's mother remarries, and in 1904 the family moves from Iowa to LaMoure County in North Dakota. While contemplating her life, Bessie remembers how much she loves and admires an aunt so she writes her a letter asking for advice. Aunt Annie replies that her prayer was that Bessie would always have the peace of God in her heart and that the key to peace is in forgiving others and in forgiving herself. The story ends with a Christmas wedding in 1907.
The novel is based on a true story that is well documented in chapter notes at the end. Author Gale Larson Schuck spent many months researching newspapers, museums, county records in both Iowa and North Dakota and the Bismarck Public Library plus recollections of family members. I liked the "first person" format and thoroughly enjoyed "Secrets of the Dark Closet." Coping with life's dilemmas in Bessie's time are as relevant now as they were 100 years ago.