The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
I’ve been working my way through fiction set in Pennsylvania and just finished The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. First published in 2005, the story begins in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky. Norah and David Henry, newly married are expecting their first child. On a snowy night, Norah goes into labor and David, who is a doctor, takes them to his clinic where the obstetrician will meet them. Because of the weather, the obstetrician doesn’t make it and David delivers a son they name Paul. To their shock, Norah gives birth to a second baby, a girl. As soon as she’s born, David recognizes that the baby has Down Syndrome and believes she will not survive long. While Norah is unconscious from the last dose of ether, he quickly hands the baby to his nurse, Caroline, and instructs her to take the baby to a home for the disabled. When Norah wakes, David tells her she had twins but that their daughter died. They name their lost baby Phoebe and move on with their lives. The title refers to a camera Norah gives David on an early anniversary, called the “Memory Keeper.” David becomes obsessed with taking pictures, perhaps to escape the real world.
Instead of giving her away, however, Caroline takes Phoebe to Pittsburgh and decides to raise the baby as her own. While Norah mourns their daughter and Paul grows up without his sister, David resolves never to tell. Readers learn David’s backstory and his reason for giving Phoebe away, an explanation of sorts. Meanwhile, Caroline keeps in secret touch with David, sending him updates and pictures, but mailing them from random locations so he can’t trace her. And David sends her money, to Post Office boxes her truck driver boyfriend has set up across the country.
Because of what hangs over the Henry family, David, Norah and Paul suffer in unforeseen ways, and they grow distant from one another. The story concentrates on the Henrys, but follows both families for twenty-five years.
The author also shows the difficulties of raising a child with Down Syndrome during the 1960s and 70s. Caroline becomes an advocate for children with learning challenges and fights for Phoebe’s right to a public education. As Phoebe grows to adulthood, Caroline must make important decisions about Phoebe’s future. The author does a good job showing Phoebe as a strong-minded young woman who falls in love and wants a life of her own. Caroline worries about Phoebe but knows she must plan for a time when Phoebe moves out.
That’s the premise of a story that starts out great, but loses steam as the characters settle into their lives. I became frustrated by several unrealistic plot lines and connections that no actual person would accept or make. So just an okay book, with a fair amount of repetition and a lot of minute description that makes the book overly long.
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