The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

FindOne place I look for new books by Northwest writers is in awards lists. So I perked up when in this year’s Oregon Book Awards, “The Small Backs of Children” by Lidia Yuknavitch won both the Ken Kesey Award for fiction and the Readers’ Choice Award.

The brief description of the plot doesn’t prepare you. In a village along the Russia/Lithuania border, an American photographer captures the prize-winning image of a young girl silhouetted against the explosion that destroyed her home.  In parallel stories, various interconnected American artists obsess about the girl, now – unbeknownst to them – thriving under the mentorship of a widow.  They attempt a “rescue” that drags us deeply into a cross-cultural exploration of loss, gender, and the meaning of art.

Yukanvitch has stated that the “membrane between fiction and nonfiction is thin as infant’s skin.” This led me to read her memoir, “The Chronology of Water,” as well as to watch her recent TED Talk on the beauty of being a misfit. All her writings seem to resonate for our times.

“Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”

This is both a tough and an incredibly beautiful book. It takes you to those corners of your soul which you might have preferred to keep unexamined. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

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