Book Review: Go Home Lake

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I’ve just recently closed the pages on Go Home Lake. Thank you very much to Second Story Press for sending this one to us – it surely did help to launch me out of a reading rut!

A haunting secret in a perfect family.

In the late 1960s Penny is the youngest of four kids, known on her street as the girl with the mean brothers. She spends all year looking forward to her summers spent at her family cottage on Go Home Lake, where she passes the days in a soaked bathing suit, catching frogs, and getting her daily fill of fresh air.

Yet Penny’s summers are far from pleasant. Her father’s weekend visits to the cottage are sporadic and her brothers prey on her innocence in every way, while her mother offers little sympathy. But Penny holds onto a secret ambition – she’s going to be a real cowboy one day. If only her dad would get her that pony he’s been promising each year.

Told from the perspective of Penny looking back on those pivotal summers, Go Home Lake tells the story of a seemingly “normal” family. Megs Beach deftly balances a child’s naiveté with razor-sharp observations of a 1960s middle-class family and of a childhood that only felt different years later.

This is the description (above) as provided by the publisher. I did go to pick this up a few months ago, but decided to wait a little while longer before getting into it, since it seemed similar to When the Saints. That one was read for the CBC Goodreads Monthly Book Read and I wanted some distance from it before picking up another one that might be too similar too soon. Then I found myself in a bit of a reading rut and reached for it since it might be a bit lighter, and it was a shorter book than some of the others waiting for my attention.

Lighter read. Ha. In the beginning, one might assume this, sure. In the beginning I couldn’t stop myself from smiling from the story Penny was telling us. She’s reflecting back to the summers in the 60s when she was just a young girl, when her family would spend their entire summers up at the family cottage, Go Home Lake.  At first we’re hearing stories of a very spunky girl that wants to grow up and be a cowboy, and she will be a true cowboy just as soon as her father gets her the pony he has been promising her. Unfortunately for Penny, she has 3 older brothers that are notorious for being mean, unruly and boys to steer clear of in their neighbourhood. Guilty by association, Penny finds many doors closed on her when seeking friendship in the neighbourhood. (Although, many of the neighbourhood antics really had me smiling still, since there were many similar and identifiable to my own/our own memories.)

As the story progresses, Penny’s memories shine a brighter light towards and onto the cracks in the family’s facade. Her mother is a harsh and overwhelmed mother, and is often left alone to raise her unruly group. She has little time and patience to deal with Penny and is often quick with a slap and put-down. Penny’s father is often absent, he’s an “executive” and the family does enjoy nice cars and the pleasure of a summer cottage to spend their entire summers at. He’s often not there and comes up only occasionally. Penny looks most forward to these times, with the promise of pony that should happen anytime now for her. However, her parents are often fighting, and their volume and severity in their arguments normally has the kids seeking shelter from any fall out. Often, Penny quietly alludes to sounds described not clearly as the slap, or tumble or falling to the ground that these sounds are, but something quieter and not as clear. We do hear how often their parents fight however. They are constantly fighting, their dad always leaving the house in a rush with a slamming door and squealing tires. After this, the house will fall silent.

This family has many cracks, many flaws, many secrets.

“I did what I had to – what any little girl had to: I had to man-up, put up and shut up. I had heard that so often I thought it was our family motto.”

After many summers spent at the cottage, hearing about the other families that summer around Penny’s family, the boredom that can set in, the antics the kids get involved in, the story takes a dark turn. You no longer are smiling as wide at Penny’s memories, because they become disturbing, heartbreaking and your stomach turns and your smiles turn into twisted frowns.

Penny’s older brother becomes a bigger influence in her shared memories. He’s often been on the periphery reading his Playboy magazines, but then, Penny’s mother grows more impatient, more frazzled and expects the older brother to step in and care more for Penny. These are dark and twisted memories for Penny. She is well aware of the discomfort, the unease and the fear she is overwhelmed with every time she is left alone with her brother.

Overall, most of Penny’s memories turn dark and unhappy here, and this is also the time when the summers at Go Home Lake come to an end. The last summer at Go Home Lake is a particularly dark and sad one. Not only due to Penny’s brother, but also because an argument between her mother and father turns dramatically violent. This violence is something that Penny knows she should try and hide from but witnesses every moment, every blow given by her father to her mother. There will be no more summers at Go Home Lake and shortly after this, Penny’s parents will divorce.

The ending is not an uplifting one, for certain. But overall, there is no denying this was an excellent debut, excellent read for me. Even though I’m still feeling the direct punches to my gut, Penny is a character that won’t soon leave my mind.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev