This unusual novel is written with a particular sensitivity to the nuances of a life complicated by an extraordinary turn of events beyond the normal realm of experience, a thoughtful look into the world of the corrections system and those it affects besides those convicted of crimes.
For Patty Dickerson in upstate New York, it all starts on a night her husband fails to return home after a few celebratory drinks with his best friend after a softball game. Tommy Dickerson and his friend Gary are arrested in the commission of a crime, but when a very pregnant Patty gets the call early the next morning, she has no idea of the severity of her husband’s problem, hoping to borrow the money for bail and a decent lawyer.
Later, at the courthouse, Patty learns that her husband is accused of manslaughter for the accidental death of an old woman at the time of a robbery, one of many committed by the two men. Naïve and without resources, Patty is confronted with bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of money that will plague Tommy’s defense and their ability to navigate the legal and penal system.
Patty remains convinced that she and Tommy can weather this terrible obstacle to the life they had planned together, but when Tommy is convicted and sentenced to twenty-eight years, she is barely able to navigate the next few weeks, let alone consider the bleak future that now awaits them.
Patty will have to raise their son, Casey, along with sporadic visits to her husband in jail, subsisting on those few visits and the letters they share, fortunately offered shelter by her widowed mother and a regular, if stultifying job.
Unwilling to give up on her love of her husband or her dreams of family, Patty clings to the expediency of the immediate future, remaining loyal, refusing to abandon hope in the face of the years ahead without Tommy. Meanwhile, Casey grows up in the shadow of his father’s incarceration, learning to keep secrets from the children at school.
Patty’s youth passes in limbo from visit to visit, worrying about her son’s adjustment in a foreign environment that sets them apart from everyone they know. Through the numbing boredom of Patty’s days and in simple prose, O’Nan illustrates the toll exacted on family members of the incarcerated, the natural apathy of institutionalization and the hopelessness that dogs every day, month and year of the sentence.
It is Patty who holds the family together, while Tommy does the time, refusing to relinquish the bright promise of her youth and her love for Tommy. This is unexplored territory, a behind-the-scenes view of prison life as lived by spouses, a family trapped by one man’s crime against society, a good wife refusing to relinquish her family to its fate.