Tidewater Review - January 2014

The Cage and the Key

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Cage and The Key by Amy Abrams. Ranthia Press, Easton, MD. 207 pages. $12.95.

Poor Celia! She is really messed up. From infancy to maturity, she’s the talented unhappy girl who turns out to make a lifetime of bad choices in which she tries, and mostly fails, to find happiness. Celia is the tormented main character in Amy Abrams’ first novel, The Cage and The Key, with the subtitle A Spiritual Sojourn.
As polished as Abrams’ ability is to make her characters real, she also makes places vivid. The story covers a lot of territory: the Midwest’s small towns; a horrifying “sanitarium” with keepers more frightening than the patients; Manhattan and the art scene in the 1950s; the Southwest during the rise of housing developments that mushroomed on the deserts; and Indian reservations with vivid descriptions of the colors of land and sky.
As accurate as the terrain is, it’s the people who are so well drawn they quickly engage the reader in a feeling of recognition. As each new character enters the story, Abrams provides clues that imprint as firmly as if we’re reading a diary of someone we know well. Some of them make us admire them, some we know are up to no good, and others we simply want to shake some sense into.
With an admirable economy of words, Abrams introduces her characters. Celia’s mother is Cynthia. She’s married to Ben, who is the richest man in a little town. Cynthia is most interested in clothes and spending time with women friends at the country club. She has little or no interest in her two little girls. That’s Maggie, the maid’s, job. Celia is the younger child. At the age of 18 months, her father begins a year-long pattern of sexual abuse on the baby.
An aside in italics piques the reader’s interest. An ominous clue emerges to bring up a source of Celia’s background. We have just read about Cynthia’s trip to the hospital where Celia is born. The strange message says her parents are “not on Earth, but beyond the heavens...Curled upon a cloud...” Her first mother, Lady Kamara, despairs that her daughter (Celia) will be able to find her since her child has chosen to be “sent to earth to tame her rebellious spirit.” Uh oh! What is Abrams throwing at the reader? Read on.
Ben Berrens is Celia’s earth father. He’s impatient and hopes the new baby is a boy, as he already has a two-year-old daughter.
Ben is ashamed of his own parents. His father, Leland, was afflicted as a child, having developed an embarrassing twitch. An incorrect diagnosis labeled it permanent as it became worse in adolescence. To avoid embarrassing his family at the wedding of his older sister, Leland is packed off to a “hospital” for disabled and brain injured patients ~ at first a temporary solution to the family shame.
After the wedding, Leland’s mother died and his father became a drunkard who committed suicide. The newlywed sister moved away and nobody was left to rescue Lelland. For two years he was sodomized by the crazy “hospital” owner until he suddenly regained control of his flailing arms and legs. He attacked his tormenter, took his keys and fled.
Informed that both his parents were dead, he was on his own. He got a job, married and begat Ben, who ran away from his parents when Leland also became a drunkard. Leland’s experience of sexual abuse made him unable to adapt to normal life, and he vanishes from the story.
Now, back to Celia ... Abrams follows Celia’s progress as her parents divorce and her father dies, and her non-maternal mother marries money and travels most of the time with her new husband. Celia entertains herself alone and finds a talent for art. Her mother sends money for art school in New York and gives permission for Celia to live in the brownstone from Ben’s estate.
Rated the best student in her class, she was shy and nearly friendless. In her sophomore year she was seduced by an older teacher whose fame vanished when his realistic paintings went out of fashion. Realism was replaced with abstract expressionism. Celia preferred realism and agreed to sit for a nude portrait, which led to an affair. The teacher was noted for choosing a young girl from his class each year to be a model for his nudes, and when the painting was complete he dumped her for a replacement.
Celia was crushed and accepted an invitation by a friendly female teacher to attend a two-week painting symposium in Arizona over the summer. She loved the experience and was ready to return to school until graduation. By that time she was over her infatuation for the art teacher that students called The Wolf, and returned to the Southwest to continue painting.
The demand for housing had just peaked and Celia had to job hunt so she could stay. She found work teaching art on an Indian reservation where she was loved by the children and their parents.
In the meantime, she caught the eye of a handsome man in the construction business. She was flattered with flowers, romantic dinners, trips in his big car and a marriage proposal. She fell wildly in love, not noticing his avarice when she mentioned words like “brownstone” in New York, “a rich mother” and his sly awareness of her rising acclaim in the burgeoning art world. She was his path to social success, he thought.
A year after their marriage, a daughter was born. Celia adored her child and was the opposite of her own negligent mother. The roof fell when she discovered that her husband had been having an affair with another woman since early in their relationship. A divorce decree revealed that the cad had all her money, sole rights to her portfolio, and he also won joint custody of her beloved daughter.
Celia’s life became more tough every day. A friend on the reservation introduced her to the shaman of the tribe. He counseled her on a road to recovery, a journey to find her soul, a part of her that had been lost. She was urged to take a solo trip to Sedona, a tourist destination for believers who hoped to see a UFO in the remote desert sky. She learned meditation. She conquered doubts and struggled with depression.
Celia’s recovery includes sleeping on a blanket in the desert to discover her totem in a dream. She’s disappointed to dream about an alligator. It certainly wasn’t the swan she’d hoped for. This was only the first bad dream of many that read more like descriptions of hallucinations from nasty pills or the like. One disaster after another robs her of just about everything that she loves, just as her cloud parents and shaman predicted. The return of her soul would be a hard passage.
On a day Celia was exhausted, and having nothing more to give up, it happened. Her cloud parents were there to embrace her and she finds contentment. Her soul has come back and she is at peace. An old love from art school days is discovered nearby and they are set to live happily ever after.
Abrams’ New Age focus is rather a unique basis for the troubles of a wounded child. Whether the reader accepted it or hoped for less hocus-pocus is a matter of taste. Whatever its effect, it’s undeniable that the book is beautifully written.
Abrams, who recently moved to the Eastern Shore from New York City, is a former publishing executive at art magazines. She has also been published in The Wall Street Journal, Art in America and Village Voice Media.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.