If, as a parent, you are very lucky, or freakishly self-possessed, you understand from the get-go that the object of the game is to love your children exactly as they are. For the rest of us--that is to say, for anyone who has experienced adversity, disappointment, shame, loneliness, boredom, insecurity, rage, or vanity on the way to reaching the reproductive age--parenting is often akin to that 12-steppers' exercise where you pray for your enemies.
This universal, near impossible-to-articulate experience has spawned a genre of trenchant, witty literature by unflinching, self-deprecating mothers, most notably Anne Lamott, Ariel Gore, and the editors of the quarterly bible of older-chick-with-stretchmarks lit, Brain, Child magazine. To that list, add Minneapolis native and Minnesota Monthly staffer Ann Bauer and her debut novel, A Wild Ride up the Cupboards.
Most simply, Wild Ride is about a mother who struggles to raise a child with a confounding, nameless disability that keeps him curtained off from his loved ones. But it's also about a troubled, disarmingly true marriage, a loving family that can't name even its long-dead ghosts, a friendship that falters after decades of fealty. Ultimately, it's about a driven, talented, flawed woman, who, in the process of loving her baffling child, becomes a better person.
The mother at the center of the story is Rachel, who marries young, to a laconic, 6'6" giant who adores her and the three children they conceive in quick succession. Jack isn't very good at making money, and the couple is barely holding it together when precocious four-year-old Edward more or less disappears into himself. The severity of the tragedy becomes clear in a painful scene in which Edward gets kicked out of story hour by a nasty librarian.
"If only she knew," Bauer writes. "For three days, he had not spoken. Not one word. He was round-cheeked and golden-haired but sometimes his whole face looked dead. He'd chewed holes in some of his clothes. Overnight, he would no longer let me hug him. The day before, I'd found him on his bed holding one hand in front of his eyes and turning it slowly."
A parade of experts fails to diagnose Edward's troubles; each hard-won appointment ends with a shrug and the opinion that Edward isn't autistic, but it's probably best to label and treat him as if he were. Desperation leads the couple to take chances, some of which prove terribly costly to the family. Whether the payoff is worthwhile is something readers, like mothers, will have to conclude for themselves.
By the end of the story Jack and Rachel, still only tenuously perched in middle-class adulthood, have come to see Edward's alternate reality as more wonderland than disability. There's a disarming scene in which the family attends a funeral and Edward positions himself next to the casket, greeting mourners. He grabs a cane away from one and balances it on his head. Bauer writes: "'He's Puck,' Jack had whispered to me just the month before in a moment much like this one. 'He's just not like the rest of us. He's here to stir up trouble and make the world a little less real.'"
That there are many similarities between Rachel and author Bauer is hardly surprising, given that Wild Ride started as memoir. Like Rachel, Bauer is the mother of three, including a son who perplexed parents and doctors alike by slipping into what Bauer describes as "an autistiform stage," but who returned, Puckishly, to continue teaching his mother about grace. But the novel's twists of fate are products of Bauer's imagination, as is Edward. "This child is not him," Bauer says of her son. "We did not do these things. But we were desperate enough to do these things. And I thought, what if I was desperate enough to do absolutely anything?"
Bauer recounts the relevant portions of her story--that is, those that compose the back story for Wild Ride--over tea and a composed salad at Bakery on Grand, noting ruefully that, as Minnesota Monthly's restaurant reviewer, she's usually the one taking notes over a bite to eat. (Bauer's food-writing duties are best performed anonymously, which is why this article is not accompanied by her portrait.) Short and slender, she has a halo of curly brown hair and an aura of intense energy. So much so that after she'd been at Minnesota Monthly a few months, her officemates politely asked her to work from home a couple of days a week--a story she's quite capable of laughing at.
In May of 2002, Bauer graduated from the University of Iowa with an MFA in creative writing. A prestigious degree, but for the newly single parent, no meal ticket. Bauer landed a job teaching gifted high school students at a summer program in Rhode Island. She loved New England, and "walked into Brown at exactly the right time" to land a one-year teaching job. "It paid barely enough for us to live," she says. "But it was this place that felt nutritive in terms of writing.... I had a full-time office with support staff and that's where I sat and turned my very thin MFA thesis into a novel."