Childhood tragedy can be overwhelming, but in Christie Hodgen’s hands, the experiences of nine-year-old Frankie and her younger brother, Teddy, transcend the maudlin in a complex emotional tapestry that leaves the reader richer for having known these children.
Near Boston in the 1980s, the novel is related from Frankie’s perspective, centering on her disaffected Vietnam-vet father, who returns from the war an amputee. In spite of crushing depression and a failing marriage, Randall Hawthorne takes on the role of his children’s caretaker, wife Gerry working extra shifts at Friendly’s to make ends meet.
Caught up in the raptures of childhood, Frankie and Teddy are oblivious to their parent’s struggles, entertained by their father’s stream of foolish jokes and Grouch Marx imitations (“Hello, I must be going!”), hours spent watching The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers on their outmoded black and white television, a magical world of TV images and spontaneous laughter.
Even an unexpected visit from “Uncle Harpo” only adds to the children’s enjoyment, enthralled by story-filled hours and raucous humor as the brothers reprise the antics of their own youth. The world is still a wonderful place for Frankie and Teddy, full of silliness and unexpected surprises.
Then fate intervenes: Randall shoots himself, unable to sustain the despair that overwhelms him. Gerry is devastated, frantically treading the rising water of her own grief; Teddy and Frankie rise bravely to the occasion, the emotional fissures of the family only gradually surfacing with time.
As the years pass, the children absorb the very different quality of life without Randall. Frankie withdraws, silent and uncommunicative; Teddy throws increasingly violent tantrums, railing at the unfairness of his young life; and Gerry stares, hypnotized by the television screen, staggering between work and home, muttering, “you kids,” drinking herself to sleep at night: “The trouble with the dead was that they packed up and left you, and there was nothing you could do about it.”
Tapping into the bittersweet memories of childhood, the author evokes the fragile and transient moments of Frankie and Teddy’s existence before it is trampled by the reality. Written with unexpected grace, this poignant family drama is defined by Frankie’s spirit and compassion for her mother and brother, the three gathered religiously before the flickering TV, the television nearly a family member, their link to the rest of the world.
Sustained only by their determination to survive and battered by their shared loss, the family makes a remarkable journey from grief to hope. Hello, I Must Be Going is a remarkable novel, filled with insight, heartbreak and transcendent moments, unconditional love and laughter triumphant in the face of sorrow and defeat.