The Sun Hasn’t Fallen from the Sky
“This story of a young girl’s survival could easily be overly sentimental, but never is. The promise of this memoir’s early pages and what lingers when the story is finished is Ms. Gangel’s gift of restraint as her personal tale subtly wrings emotion and inspires hope.”
Alcoholic parents, poverty, abandonment, abuse, and loneliness are hardly unique themes in a memoir. What makes them feel fresh and sets apart The Sun Hasn’t Fallen from the Sky is how beautifully Alison Gangel captures the candid and un-gussied-up voice of Ailsa, the young version of herself who narrates the story.
Ms. Gangel finds the balance between spare prose and the exact details to reveal a sense of place, volatile family love and the unpredictability that characterizes Ailsa’s world. The first chapter opens with what passes for a warm family gathering.
“Give that girl a spotlight,” says my da, pointing straight at me. ‘C’mon, Puddin, your turn.’
“I stand in front of the coal fire and hold onto the sides of my dress. My da’s holding the bottle of sherry to my mouth like a microphone.”
At the end of Ailsa’s performance her da empties all his change into her two hands. His pride and her pleasure in pleasing him are palpable. Two pages and who knows how many drinks later, Da wakes up seven-year-old Ailsa and her sister Morag shouting for them to “Choose who ye want tai live wi!” while he belts their ma across the back with a fireplace poker and she whacks him across the head with an iron frying pan.
Not long after, Da is lugged off to jail and Ailsa and Morag end up in a group foster home. Aunt Vera runs the home with strict rules and sporadic cruel discipline, but there’s also stability, regular school attendance, good food and even sweets. Ailsa never stops dreaming of the day her ma and da will rescue her.
They never do.
What saves her instead is the encouragement of a teacher who recognizes and nurtures her special musical talent. He is the one constant adult role model in her life who never abuses, abandons or loses faith in her.
Ms. Gangel’s common Scottish expressions add texture and create the sense of character and place. They may also slow readers unfamiliar with terms such as jumper for jacket, press for wardrobe, or jumble and bits for odds and ends. The same is true for the Glaswegian accents in much of the dialogue. Exchanges like “Whit’ve ye goat there, lassies?” and We’re huvin a jumble sale . . . ye kin buy that if ye want,” may require readers to pause to translate.
A heads up for language police, the “c” word and “f” word are used so frequently—even by the children—that after a few chapters they stop sounding like four letter words.
This story of a young girl’s survival could easily be overly sentimental, but never is. The promise of this memoir’s early pages and what lingers when the story is finished is Ms. Gangel’s gift of restraint as her personal tale subtly wrings emotion and inspires hope.