Schroder is written as a long letter or apologia by the title character to his estranged wife, an attempt to explain why he failed to return their daughter Meadow following the brief scheduled visit that is part of their custody agreement, and instead was gone for almost a week.
“What follows,” the book’s first sentence says, “is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.”
Disappearance is a good word for the beginning of this book since that’s what it’s about on two levels: it provides a record of a father’s disappearance with his young daughter, and simultaneously tells the story of the disappearance of a son, Erik Schroder – from self, from the past, from his own father, from his homeland.
Erik and his father arrive in Dorchester, MA from West Germany (via the East) when Erik is nine. By the time he turns fourteen, he’s applied for and been accepted to a summer camp without his father’s participation or knowledge, as Eric Kennedy, the American boy he wishes to be. Eric Kennedy was “raised in a town on Cape Cod he called Twelve Hills, a stone’s throw from Hyannis Port, a treasured only child, endowed with a last name that could only be uttered in rapture.” He keeps the fiction of his created identity going through the upswing of his life – college, a career in real estate, marriage, fatherhood – and then through the eventual decline of career and marriage, a deception that requires a near-total break with his own father. When your life is predicated on deception, it’s necessary to be vigilant all the time to protect it.
As the country of his birth is divided by a wall, Schroder/Kennedy is likewise a man divided, his old life walled off from his new one. Before he and his wife separate, she tells him, “Sometimes you feel like a stranger to me.” And of course he does, because he is a stranger even to himself, estrangement his natural state. He is estranged from his original self, from his father and in another way, from his daughter, a separation brought about by the terms of the divorce. His inability to tolerate that form of separation precipitates the events of the novel.
“Did the accused premeditate the abduction?” Erik asks in his document. “The answer is no. Or, not really. Besides, the word abduction is all wrong. It was more like an adventure we both embarked upon in varying levels of ignorance and denial.”
Interlaced with Erik’s telling of the day-by-day history of the abduction are chapters that illuminate his past so that we come to know, almost simultaneously, Erik Schroder, the German boy, and Eric Kennedy, the self-made American, a duality that is ultimately untenable. “Don’t you know it yet, Erik?” his father says to him early on. “There is no such thing as forgetting.” Erik Schroder can call himself Eric Kennedy – or John Toronto, as he (ludicrously) does later in the book – but he can’t ever stop being Erik Schroder.
Still, his burning wish is to try, to maintain the fiction of Eric Kennedy as long as he can. He doesn’t want to return home because he knows he’s in trouble for kidnapping his daughter, but even more because “I wasn’t ready to blow up my life… my lovingly constructed American life… I wanted to keep being Eric Kennedy. If I went back now, they’d make me be Schroder.”
Erik is dishonest, he frequently uses poor judgment and is sometimes skewed in his observations. During the year he takes off to be a stay-at-home father while his wife works, he allows his daughter to watch a dead fox decompose in the backyard as a science lesson, one of the events that appalls his wife and makes her question his judgment. And once he’s taken off with Meadow and decided to go to Canada, he realizes he has brought along his own passport, but not hers. “Since I lacked Meadow’s passport,” he says, “and since she was asleep, I reasoned I would just scoop her up and lay her in the trunk and drive her across the border.” This makes sense to him, though by doing it, he puts his daughter in jeopardy, something he does more than once throughout their week together.
Erik is not an able or trustworthy caretaker. Childlike himself, he is able to pursue and enjoy things on Meadow’s six-year-old level, but he is less able to see to her needs – for food, rest, health care. On some level he knows this, as he knows the trip and his life as Eric Kennedy must end. An elegiac consciousness of loss runs through the book as when, one afternoon, Meadow is tired and he carries her on his shoulders. “She was heavy, but I found myself glad to labor across the field carrying her like that, because I still could. Everything we did was starting to feel touched with lastness.”
Another thread that weaves through the novel is silence. “…When I say silence makes me think of my father,” Erik says, “I mean silence in the sense of censored speech, censored memory, the static of erased tape.” There are many silences in the book, from Meadow’s divesting a “heavily discounted package of chocolate Easter eggs… of their pink and blue foil wrappers in silent rapture,” to the bar where he takes Meadow, he and the bartender falling into a “melancholy silence,” to the “sea of tall buttercups, whose sheltered birdsong we could hear over the silence.”
Silence is also an avocational pursuit for Erik who is doing research for a book he’s titled “Pausology: An Experimental Encyclopedia.” “I collect pauses,” he says. “Literary, cultural, political – when something was not said or not done.” This struck me as a bit too much authorial cleverness, fitting overly neatly with the theme of silence and absence, the things Erik Schroder gives up when he becomes Eric Kennedy.
Some scenes or moments in the book aren’t entirely convincing. A woman Erik and Meadow meet along the way offers to do some shopping for them, a list that includes a box of hair dye. The dye feels like another poor decision on Erik’s part, but as it turns out, Meadow dyes her own hair. It’s not credible that a six-year-old could manage this alone, without harm. And earlier, Meadow tells Erik her mother “must be changing her mind about you. I’ve told her and I’ve told her. I guess it’s not hopeless.” That’s too sophisticated a series of connections for a young child.
But the missteps are small things. There are many more beautiful moments: the upstate New York town of Plattsburgh is excellently described as “a snarl of a town, surprisingly impoverished, barracks of transient white people hanging about, their children wide-awake all night.” In a flashback, a German guard is described as having “fuzzy hair that he wore in a kind of blond atmosphere around his head.” And Erik’s unique and distinctive voice is entirely convincing.
Amity Gaige has created Erik Schroder who, in turn, creates Eric Kennedy, an implausible character who is always believable. It’s a vivid and memorable book.