Book Review: A Thousand Valleys
Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
An intriguing literary feat that examines one family’s approach to addiction, mental illness, and generational trauma
A Thousand Valleys holds a magnifying glass to an American family, told from the perspective of a young boy caught in the crossfires of his family’s delusion and suffering.
Jimmy opens the story as a somewhat common eight-year-old boy, with an overworked single mom and the same concerns, friends, toys, and bullies as many other kids his age. Since his mom (Sara) works nights as a nurse at the local hospital, he spends most nights with a neighbor who looks after him. The stress of her job, her past health anxieties, and the sudden death of her childhood love Elvis is too much for Sara and she slowly unravels.
What begins as a depressive episode soon snowballs into full-on delusions of a second family in Canada who sends her messages through the TV screen. Her delusions spiral into voices in her head, a cacophony of characters giving her directions, threatening her, telling her what to do.
Jimmy, scared and unsure, contacts his estranged grandparents, beginning a rollercoaster of ups and downs for both him and Sara, as their family intervenes. As Jimmy goes to live with his grandparents, Sara’s sister takes a greater role in their lives, showcasing her own mental health issues she contends with. After a violent episode in the home, things take a turn for the worse.
While a welcome relief from the instability of his mother, grandparents Phil and Diane have their own slew of issues, which inevitably transfer onto Jimmy. As he struggles with his mother’s commitment to a mental hospital, Jimmy is thrown into another situation where adult family members are deciding what’s best for him without talking to him first.
Spread over a couple year period, readers watch Jimmy begin to understand his mother’s illness, try to trust other adults, and eventually make choices to control his own destiny. While the adults in his life try to help, damage, and disappoint him, Jimmy starts to realize he has to depend on himself.
A Thousand Valleys would be a great fit for those drawn to fast fiction with a strong hook. Fulmer’s writing style is clear and whisks readers smoothly along with Jimmy, Sara, and their dysfunctional family. Their peaks and valleys are quick and range wildly, keeping us engaged for the entirety of this lengthy novel.
Sara’s illness comes on fast and sudden, and the link to a depressive episode a year ago seems like a large leap to schizophrenia. However, her blank stares, secret messages from an Earth-father and aliens immediately peak interest; how can’t we be drawn to figuring out what’s happening inside Sara’s head?
Sara is described as hollow, but Fulmer is especially focused on describing her physically. While it’s noted she’s overweight, his descriptions of her face, body and eating habits levy disgust and leave us curious why her physicality gets so much attention.
Moreover, Jimmy’s development is surprisingly cogent for an 8 year-old. He has big, philosophical thoughts about life and love. At one point he questions, “Why do we have so much cake and so little love?”, which, apart from being perhaps too poetic on his part, can feel distracting for readers expecting a young child’s perspective on his family’s generational trauma.
A fun and snappy novel, albeit with dark themes, readers will enjoy the clarity of the situation and the smooth style presented by Fulmer in telling this all too familiar story—that of unhealed, generational trauma and its effect.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 368 pages
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