Guest Review by Carolyn Miller Parr
From the first words – describing the sensation of heroin entering a vein – to the last, full of hope, Katherine James had my full attention. Here’s how it begins:
They say that when you tie a rubber tube around an upper arm, you feel the love the way a river feels a rock—a swish up or over or around. The river tightens and narrows, the wake behind it shoots out water like the universe shoots out stars, but the gritty fog of sediment tells the whole story The needle goes in, Rubber tube. Pull it tight. Flatten the arm. Needle.
The story of Sweetboy’s addiction is a memoir as riveting as any novel. I found it hard to look away from any page, harder still to put it down for the night. This love letter to a lost son sings like gospel music, poetry in a minor key, words of raw pain and faith and unquenchable hope. Nobody knows the trouble she’s seen but Jesus – and he won’t give up. Neither will she. [I want to call her Kate when she’s the mom in her story, as opposed to the author. It just seems more real.]
The book’s title comes from the constellation Orion’s Belt which Kate contemplates at night through her floor-to-ceiling picture window as she prays for her children.
Kate’s teenage son, whose given name we’re never told, really is a sweet boy. When his parents discover an iPhone message that proves he is using – again – after being clean for months and regaining their trust – Sweetboy takes off in his car, gets high, and hides out with friends, but calls his mother to tell her, slurring his speech, that he’s okay and not to worry.
She and her husband Rick, even deep into their nightmare, never reject their son, never stop loving, never stop praying for his recovery.
Rick runs Bible study groups two nights a week, one for kids who are not using drugs, the other for those still struggling. Their home is open twenty-four hours a day to boys who, for whatever reason don’t want to go home. Kate calls them “the Lost Boys.” They tell her their secrets. She loves them. Some of them will overdose and die. She never imagined Sweetboy could become one of them.
There’s another character in the story, a non-human one: The Chill Spot. Sophie, one of Sweetboy’s two older sisters, asked her parents if she and her friends could fix up an unused space over the garage as a place for kids to hang out. The teens painted it, furnished it with old furniture, pictures, and a rug, and made it homey and comfortable. They even hung a paint-by-number picture of Jesus on the wall.
The Chill Spot was a place to make music, talk, play board games and cards, and smoke cigarettes. More and more kids started to show up there. They’d wave at Kate through the kitchen window. She and Rick knew about the smoking but assumed it was harmless.
They thought The Chill Spot was a safe space for kids to have fun and close enough for them to supervise. They were wrong.
Like many parents of teenagers, Kate and Rick are torn between hovering and looking away. Sometimes they disagree with each other about which is best. Hovering keeps the kids safe—temporarily. Looking the other way allows them to learn from their mistakes. This book raises the question, where do we draw the line?
We know early on that Sweetboy has overdosed on heroin. The questions that keep us reading are Why? And If he survives, will he do it again? And what will stop him?
The story is gripping. So is the author’s writing. Katherine James fully engages the reader’s senses. Her voice is distinctive—informal, friendly, brutally honest. She invites you into her mind and heart, as if you were sharing a cup of tea in her kitchen. And her descriptions are poetic and original.
Take, for instance, this scene. Sweetboy has overdosed and can’t be roused. The narrator suddenly switches from first person to third. She becomes “the mother” instead of “I”; in that moment she can’t accept that what’s happening is happening to her. As medics pass with Sweetboy on a stretcher, James writes, “She doesn’t want to see her blue son so she turns away and her knees are gelatinous and there is no bone so she sinks her body all the way into the grass.”
That run-on sentence sounds exactly as I imagine a distraught parent would speak.
We see ourselves in Kate and Rick. James urges readers not to judge teen addicts—or their parents. The only judgment here is for herself.
A Prayer for Orion is not a how-to book with neatly laid out steps on how to keep your kid from going astray, or what to do when it happens. It wouldn’t e true to life if it claimed to know.
Even so, this is a book for every parent of a child who’s making bad decisions that threaten their future. It lets parents know they are not alone. The author understands you’re doing the best you can. Don’t hate yourself. It’s a cautionary tale for parents of younger children, warning them not to expect to have all the answers. It’s a book for parents who are desperately waiting for the return of their own prodigal. And it’s a book teenagers themselves might profit from reading. In fact it should be in every high school library.
Maybe it’s really a book for everyone. I’m none of the above but I loved A Prayer for Orion, every lyrical word.
Carolyn Miller Parr is the co-author with Sig Cohen of Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age (Hendrickson Publishers, 2019) Find her online at her blog Tough Conversations.
Book review from Englewood Review of Books with author’s permission.
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