"Fly Away Home" is the story of a woman's liberation, but with a disquieting slant. Sally Bryan leaves her severely retarded 13-year-old son Mattie at home in Berkeley in the care of her husband Bob, for whose immunity and detachment she feels anger, and takes her normal little girl Janie along with her wedding silver and paints and canvasses on a long-awaited vacation in Sun Valley, free of the hour-to-hour responsibility that has become hers through default.
During her drive to Sun Valley, where she had spent carefree summers working as a waitress with other college students, Sally searches for her uncomplicated past and the people who inhabited it. She comes closer to understanding herself, and she also approaches the breaking point--a crisis of decision caused, and made more difficult, by the trying circumstances of her life.
Carolyn Doty, in exploring moral and ethical dilemmas, fulfills the novelist's responsibility to do more than entertain the reader. Central to the issues she raises is the notion that it is the mother who bears not only the major burden of child care but, the inevitable corollary, the blame when something goes wrong. For the child retarded through birth defect, she makes the analogy to a package that one didn't take proper care of. A child dies, and it is the mother's fault for not watching properly. The author's point is well taken. Homosexuality and schizophrenia also have been laid at the feet of the hapless mother, and if placed at the feet of the father at all, then only nominally.
Doty also knows that love is not synonymous with being there, a rationale that helps the protagonist Sally come to her final painful conclusion. "People equate love with presence for lack of a better definition. They equate abandonment with lack of love. It's far too complicated to make out the picture from the negative, to reconstruct the realistic scene from the abstract. The surface is all most of us have anyway . . . everything else is hidden away in terror, perhaps in the crook of an elbow."
Sally also comes to a realization that concerns all women: No man can save her; if there is any saving to do, she has to do it herself.
Through brief flashbacks, many of them almost subliminal, quick, teasing, the way flashbacks should be, we learn about Sally's husband Bob. "Sally wonders . . . what Bob sees at times like that, in the cafe with the choking child. She wonders what interesting images danced before his eyes that made it possible for him to be so calm. And after all the years of living with him, she still does not know. Perhaps he sees a sea of tolerant faces, people who understand and are sympathetic. A Norman Rockwell painting . . . " And we learn about Mattie, who is taller than Sally, wakes up hourly and must be put back to bed, has an attention span of about 20 seconds, whose future she sees in a crowd of misshapen adults to whom small children point and laugh, and who has become sexually mature, a fact we learn in a shocking scene.
Despite its grim subject, the book is not without levity. In one scene Sally, facing endless red tape in her efforts to get help for Mattie, wryly asks a social service official, "What if I douse myself with gasoline and burn up on the steps of your building?" She is told, "Someone could then reapply for consideration of your child."
As for the novel's slips: Doty's metaphors and her use of irony sometimes fizzle, and she has chosen to write in the present tense, which for me was a distraction.
The strength of "Fly Away Home" is the delicacy and thoughtfulness with which the author deals with a startling concept: That the ultimate freedom for women includes the right to detach themselves from not only husband but child, including the severely handicapped child whose care preempts all else.