In 1965 Los Angeles, Defoe “Duffy” Pilar Chavez is a precocious ten year-old and the ugly duckling of her family. She’s skipped two grades, she writes poetry, she tells enchanting fun-filled stories to her little brother as they play. She and her four siblings, by several different fathers, were separated for five years in foster homes, not knowing how the others fared. They are now reunited with their mother who angrily ekes out a subsistence life for them.
Mr. St. John, their social worker, gives the family a gift of Gibran’s The Prophet as a Christmas gift, with a chapter marked as “for” each of the family members. Duffy’s chapter is Self-Knowledge. One day Mama announces that they are moving to a new house. This alarms the children, as a similar announcement signaled the beginning of their fragmented lives in foster homes. Artie, the oldest, gives each of the other kids two dimes for emergency phone calls: “If it’s a trick and we’re going to be picked up for foster homes again, you keep these dimes,” he said. “There’s an extra in case you lose one. If they take these away from you, just find some bottles to sell and hide that dime somewheres they won’t find. No one’s gonna do us like last time.”
With the haunting unfiltered acceptance of a ten year-old seeking to make sense of the world she lives in, Duffy leads the reader into her complex journey, her Quest for self-knowledge. She cobbles together a frighteningly cohesive belief system out of her experience of abuse, religious doctrine, a dawning experience of special affection for other girls, and a self-sacrificing sense of responsibility for her mother’s happiness.
Runyon’s writing is smooth and pitch-perfect, never loses the sense of Duffy’s age or her situation, never shies from the beauty, pain and abuse of it, simultaneously stark and psychologically complex. Duffy narrates her story without rancor as she searches for her place in a dangerous world, accepts the burdens she believes are hers to carry, and attempts to solve the problems she believes are hers to fix.
A House of Light and Stone takes its name from one of Duffy’s poems, a poem she destroys without letting the reader see it. It is a wonderfully told story, and utterly compelling. Not only is the writing outstanding, but the core essence of the story is well worth pondering as it carries its painful realities to a completely satisfying resolution. I urge you to read and savor this exceptional book. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker