My Radio Radio by Jessie van Eerden
Audiences from the nebulous preteen years through adulthood will connect with Naomi Ruth Wincott, the point-of-view character in Jesse van Eerden’s novel My Radio Radio. Naomi Ruth, or Omi, is one of the few remaining members, and the only child left, of the Dunlap Fellowship of All Things in Common, a sect that shares a community house supported by the member’s incomes. With her photographic memory, she makes an excellent choice of narrator for this novel, which opens as the CP (Common Purse) learns that one of theirs, Woodrun, has died in a car accident on his way home from college to visit. Wood is Omi’s brother and the child of the sect’s leaders. But, because all things are in common, relationships are not identified this way, nor are the members allowed to grieve in the way a family might grieve.
Omi Ruth also wrestles with her newly discovered, and conflicted, feelings for the rebel boy next door and the Amish boy who delivers their eggs. She is so unsure of herself that she cannot see the obvious: that both these boys have an affection for her. Readers may worry that Vaughn Buey will take advantage of her innocence or that Spencer Frye will leave her behind when he goes on his Rumspringa. Yet, readers will root for her to begin a relationship with either of them.
When a strange girl, Tracie Casteel, shows up at the house with a request to become part of the CP, they reluctantly accept her and, more willingly, accept the government check she receives due to the death of both her parents. Omi Ruth is taken by Tracie’s “coal-town voice” and something else that she can’t identify. The adults of the CP don’t question Tracie’s obviously pregnant belly so neither does Omi, who knows Tracie is holding a far deeper secret.
The novel’s title, My Radio Radio, harkens to the radio shows that Omi Ruth and Wood recorded before he went off to Bible college to learn broadcasting. The one tape recording she rescues before the CP donates his belongings to charity holds several secrets that show how even those we think we know best can keep secrets. The motif of sound weaves throughout the novel, from the “hush-room” where Northrup waits for death to the sound of Wood’s voice revived on tape. Wood said that radio should make people feel less alone, but his voice both comforts and saddens. Tracie and Omi Ruth sneak into Wood’s old bedroom to listen to the recording she saved in what feels like a ceremony of remembrance. She hears “his voice that goes three ways at least…teasing and gentle…dynamite about to blow, and like sweet creek-water cooling, pooling, and moving on.” It is the sweet creek-water sound that brings the first tears Omi sheds since his death.
Van Eerden develops a sense of longing against a backdrop of things that fly, from the images in the mosaic Omi Ruth is creating from old ceramics, her last memory of Wood, or her emotions: “Wood’s soul that flutters in me with sharp wings.” This imagery becomes part of the largest reveal in the narrative. Even though readers may begin to suspect this reveal far sooner than Omi Ruth does, when it is finally confirmed, the discovery feels well worth the wait.
Van Eerden has a poetic sensibility in her writing. But the character development and plotting are equal to the writing, as they carry the audience through Omi Ruth’s story of becoming a woman and breaking out of her “hermit-crab shell.” We know that she is no longer the “weak-stemmed flower.” Despite some emotional setbacks throughout the story, we know she is indeed “growing stronger,” that she has found her voice.
A former journalist and public relations manager, Rhonda Lancaster holds an MA in creative writing and literature. She currently teaches dual enrollment English and creative writing in Winchester, Va. She’s worked on student publications since her first piece was published in her middle school creative arts publication. A certified Teacher Consultant for the National Writing Project, she teaches young writers’ workshops with Project Write, Inc. She is a member of WV Writers Inc. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a school of fish in Capon Bridge, W.Va.