|The Rooms are Filled
Jessica Null Vealitzek
|She Writes Press, 2014
There are two versions of a small town. In one, everyone knows each other and offers support when something goes wrong. In another, people are used to traditional mindsets and lifestyles, and either welcome change or destroy it. The main characters—a young widow, Anna, and her nine-year-old son, Michael, along with his fourth-grade teacher, Julia—experience each of these “small town” reactions in Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut novel The Rooms are Filled.
The first chapter branches between what is and what was. Now, Michael watches paramedics try to resuscitate his father, who had suffered a massive heart attack. Just days earlier, Michael and his father wade through knee-deep snow to track a local wolf pack and ensure that inhumane traps are sprung without harm. In Michael’s mind, both timeframes happen simultaneously as he tries to register his father’s sudden absence. Eventually, Michael and his mother move from Minnesota to Ackerman, Ill.—from small-town country where a kid can drive a truck at nine years old and jump naked into a lake, to small-town suburbs where difference is ostracized and Michael must pay to use the community pool. And somewhere in all this, Vealitzek introduces Julia and Rose, who are learning to cope with their newly realized sexuality in 1983. Steady Rose is confident with her identity, whereas Julia is stuck on others’ opinions. She flees, leaving Rose behind, to take a teaching job Ackerman.
After all this, the story doesn’t actually begin until page 71, when Michael arrives at Julia’s fourth grade class. On this page, the main characters’ arcs merge and the story can finally and continually progress. Up until that point, it had stalled. Although the frantic first chapter immediately garners sympathy for Anna and Michael, the rest of the beginning is filled with extensive backstory. This causes the well-crafted prose to dull, until page 71.
After the introduction to each other, the story exists for Michael and Julia, and Michael’s sections provide the most fascination. He is intriguing but simple, connected to nature, open-minded, sensitive, and intuitive. He is “small and quiet,” as his compulsive neighbor Tina notes. His attention is always placed on forgotten elements, and noticing them adds a touch of complexity to his personality. For example, “He loved the smell of pencils, the shiny smooth pages of books, and the lit classroom on dark, stormy mornings.” And he is very smart—“last year he was elected president of his elementary student council, and he was only a third grader.”
However, his intelligence creates trouble for Vealitzek. She uses limited third person to remain close to certain characters, and making a child intelligent beyond his years gives her the freedom to write more maturely than she does for the other kids. This results in descriptions that don’t quite fit. For example, “When she was angry, she developed a brogue,” Michael recollects about a previous teacher. Although it’s his thoughts, there’s that word: brogue. Most kids aren’t smart enough to know that the word exists, much less what it means, and there’s nothing in Michael’s history that would explain his knowledge of it. This is one of the very few slips in Vealitzek’s writing craft. She gets lost in her own language and occasionally forgets that not everyone can speak like she does, which causes a momentary hiccup in the narration flow.
Julia—kind, selfless, compassionate—is tied to Michael’s life the moment he steps through her door. Consequences surrounding her decisions and sexuality provide the other half of conflict in the novel. The two characters are victims of bullying throughout most of the story. Michael admits a secret about himself, and his classmates call him “retard” and declare that he has AIDS. Julia is dogged and assaulted by Tina’s father due to her sexuality. And when Julia steps in to protect Michael from his classmates, people whisper about her being a softy, parents retaliate for the wrong child, and the principal’s blasé attitude is almost callous. Of the interaction between the principal and Julia, Vealitzek writes:
“I’m confident he and the other boys just need time to adjust.” He smiled.
“I think we need a policy on bullying.”
“A policy on bullying?” Ludlow laughed. “What would that be, exactly? That kids shouldn’t be kids? No jokes? No teasing?”
Julia started to answer, but he picked up his blinking telephone to signal the meeting was over.
The people, it seems, who are most able to detect bullying are those who have been or are being bullied themselves. For everyone else, it doesn’t happen around them and can’t possibly be occurring if they can’t fathom its existence. For example, that same principal turns his attention onto Julia when her secret is out. And people who see bullying happening in front of them simply turn away.
All of this, though, is predictable. Elements of conflict are introduced—like positioned dominoes—and readers know what to expect when they fall. Readers can already determine the consequences of Julia’s sexuality becoming known, and they can anticipate the reaction when Michael proclaims a secret about himself. Each character receives what we’ve known was coming for them, whether they deserved it or not. Although we know what’s coming, we still don’t want it to. And if any readers are uncomfortable with continuous conflict, then the set-up and climax for each main character will make them squirm.
Yet there is one element to Vealitzek’s writing that shines above all else. She has a way of remembering the quiet but profound moments of childhood. The counting rhyme that most kids used growing up: “My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes. My mother punched your mother right in the nose. What color was the blood?”And she pinpoints moments of intense emotion that recall the precise feeling of largeness around an ignored or belittled person. For example, when Michael hides in bathroom, she writes:
He felt very alone, as if the rest of the world danced in happiness around him, oblivious to the child curled up in a ball in the center.
She takes Michael’s experiences and uses them to wrench out her readers’ memories and hold them up for inspection. “Remember this?” she seems to be saying. “You weren’t so different, were you?” That seems to be the point of the entire story. No matter who you are, where you come from, or who you love, you’re no different from anyone else. There should be no “apples and oranges” discussion required about relationships, there should be no tetherball game to determine dominance, and there should be no reason to crawl brokenly into bedrooms or bathrooms. Yet these events happen, and as Vealitzek’s dominoes must pick themselves up and survive, so must her readers after they finish the last page and nurse their own old wounds.