Although Hand Me Down has been compared to Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Thorne has no pretensions other than to tell the story of fourteen-year-old Liz.
While Allison’s protagonist endured particular sexual brutality, Liz is savvy enough to stay clear of that specific menace, but not because of any awareness of the adults around her. Liz’s father is an unrepentant drunk who beat her mother regularly. Liz and younger sister Jaime enjoy a few brief years of security after their father leaves, until Linda meets an ex-con through their church’s outreach program. Regardless of the fact that Terrance has done time for an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl, Linda is on a mission to save him, easily seduced by a smooth-talking lover who soon insinuates himself into the family.
Making overtly sexual overtures to Liz, Terrance keeps her in line by threatening to focus his attention on Jaime, Linda blind by choice or stupidity to the man who makes her happy. Pregnancy comes next, Linda marrying Terrance in a flurry of excitement, feigned or real. When Jaime moves in with her drunken father, Liz becomes her stepfather’s target in Linda’s absence, until social services dictates the two cannot live under the same roof. Through her usual lack of planning and ineffective parenting, Linda puts her new husband above the welfare of her daughters, repeating a pattern that has already forced the girls to act more as adults than children.
In yet another succession of emotional blows, Liz realizes that Linda has chosen this man and expects her to understand, the outcast moving over the next year from place to place, from religious-fundamentalist aunt-in-law in Sacramento to Terrance’s brother’s home to stranger’s couches and her favorite aunt’s condo in Salt Lake City. Liz learns that peace is always only temporary and purchased with gratitude and good behavior, that the outsider always knows her place and that loyalty is seldom rewarded.
Protecting Jaime has been Liz’s primary mission, even though this unselfishness carries a cost. A marginally more secure childhood purchased by her sister’s sacrifices, Jaime will never know—or appreciate—the horrors her sister kept at bay or Liz’s vigilance in protecting her sibling, Liz destined to forge her way alone. While an adolescent girl is ushered into the insecurity of no place to call home, her mother’s betrayal cuts the deepest. Even though she may in time forgive this devastating action, it is doubtful the rift between mother and daughter will truly heal. Ultimately Liz will find safe harbor, but not without heartbreak and a long road of not-homes littered with hand-me-down clothing and temporary beds, pieces of other people’s families not meant for her.
It took great courage to write this intimate novel where a child is shamed by her mother’s lack of love and left to rebuild her life from the remnants of that betrayal. Clearly, this young protagonist is a survivor who has not been destroyed by her experiences. Unfortunately, there are too many of these stories, too many children left to fend for themselves. Thorne is their voice.