Meet Betsy (Donovan) Marro
Today my best friend Betsy Marro, is in Rockport, Mass. — all the way from San Diego — to talk about her debut novel, “Casualties.” Betsy will be at Toad Hall at 7. Please join us for a little wine and cheese (we’re celebrating), some good conversation and a short reading. Betsy has generously donated a $25 Toad Hall gift certificate, to be raffled tonight. We are planning on a very good time for all.
Betsy used to live here and work as the Rockport page editor and reporter for the Gloucester Daily Times. Some readers will remember her byline — at the time her last name was Donovan. I was so taken with Betsy’s creative newswriting that I enlarged the focus of my college studies to include journalism. We first met at UNH where we were both single moms getting our degrees.
Today I am thrilled beyond words to celebrate Betsy’s homecoming and the publication of her beautiful novel in my favorite bookstore, Toad Hall. It so happens that my daughter Ardis, a librarian, is now Toad’s manager and is the one who worked with Betsy to set up the reading. We love and work on behalf of good books in my family. As we are wont to say when auspicious convergences thrill us — “Who would have guessed?” Friends, old and new, gather in a small bookstore on the rocky coast of a lovely little town at America’s edge to welcome readers, celebrate literature, hug each other, and acknowledge a beloved author’s awesome accomplishments. Please join us.
Welcome home, Betsy!
Below is my review of “Casualties” as well as a Q&A I wrote, both published earlier in GateHouse Media newspapers.
A long, hard journey home
By Elizabeth Marro. Berkley, New York, 2016. 358 pages. $15.
Elizabeth Marro’s affecting and beautiful first novel, “Casualties,” does not shy away from shame, regret and self-loathing — the underside of parenting. She takes us places we don’t want to go, makes us look, makes us feel. Her characters’ journey becomes ours and, as a consequence, we exult in their hard-won reckonings.
“Casualties” begins on the West Coast, in San Diego, where Ruth Nolan, an executive for a company that supplies contractors to support the military in Iraq, sees her own son Robbie enlist in the Marines and take two tours of duty in Iraq. She must put on a good face, given her work and all the ex-military in the company, but she is distraught. And relieved. For once, she does not have to carry all the responsibility for her troubled son.
Ruth and Robbie’s interdependence is fraught with frustration and hurt. Ruth raised Robbie by herself, almost from the beginning. While still living on the East Coast, she separated from his father in order to join RyCon, a startup at the time. Robbie’s father was later killed in a skiing accident. Loss was a constant for Ruth. Her mother walked out on Ruth and her brother Kevin when they were young, leaving the maternal grandparents to raise them on family farm in northern New Hampshire. What family Ruth and Robbie have left live in northern New Hampshire, a part of the country Ruth couldn’t wait to escape. She felt confined and limited there, while Robbie loved the mountains, the family, the farm work, the fishing.
Mother and son, alone together in San Diego, tackled life head on. Ruth, competitive and ambitious, helped grow RyCon as she tried to help Robbie with his demons, including depression. But Robbie resisted Ruth, whose demands and standards were not a good fit for him. They butted heads in what feels like all-too-familiar, perhaps inescapable family dynamics.
Robbie’s suicide, which reads as inevitable, is nonetheless a loss Ruth cannot comprehend. It is a suicide that, while provoked by war, has deeper roots and Ruth knows that. There are reasons she feels responsible, complicated as they may be, and her unbearable pain prevents even the possibility of grieving. She does the one thing she and Robbie enjoyed together — she gets in her car and drives. And thus we head into the heart of the story.
On the road, Ruth meets Casey, a 36-year-old injured veteran who has settled for a scrap of a life gambling in casinos and sleeping off benders in a tiny trailer. He suffers pain from an ill-fitting “faker” or prosthesis and he endures bad headaches. He reluctantly helps Ruth after she is brutally attacked in a parking lot in Nevada. Their brief but life-altering connection, made during a road trip to the East Coast, is intense, at times ugly, and, finally, redemptive. The need for absolution is all-powerful and never guaranteed. Kudos to Marro for diving in and surfacing with our hearts in hand.
“Casualties” is also adeptly plotted. RyCon, unbeknownst to Ruth, had failed to process insurance paperwork for many of its military contractors in war zones. A pending merger with another, bigger company may have spurred these questionable business practices. Families and injured contractors’ insurance claims have not been paid, and they begin a visible and condemning protest outside RyCon’s offices just as Robbie gets back from Iraq.
Ruth discovers, once on the road, that RyCon’s owners — her longtime colleagues —purposely circumvented rules. She must decide whether to provide information that may help the contractors’ case against RyCon. If she does blow the whistle, she will lose everything — her investment in the company and her professional standing. At 47, she will be totally discredited.
Loss, both the kind you do not ask for and the kind you invite, does not mean starting over. It does not mean giving up. Marro has other plans for loss. Loss is sometimes the clearing out of the path we take to heal ourselves of wounds long neglected. Loss opens up to vision.
Marro (known as Betsy Donovan when she worked on the North Shore) now lives in San Diego. Early in her professional career, she lived in and reported on Boston’s North Shore, including Rockport and Salem, Mass., for what was then Essex County Newspapers. She will be on Cape Ann and Portsmouth, N.H., to read from “Casualties” in April.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Author Elizabeth (Betsy) Marro comes home to read from debut novel
Author Elizabeth Marro will read from and speak about her debut novel, “Casualties,” at Toad Hall Bookstore in Rockport on Wednesday, April 20, at 7 p.m., and at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth on Thursday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m.
Marro grew up in northern New Hampshire and studied journalism at the University of New Hampshire. She went on to complete internships with Essex County Newspapers, and to report for The Gloucester Daily Times. Her readers knew her as Elizabeth (Betsy) Donovan. She now lives in San Diego but frequently returns to the area.
“Casualties,” which has been receiving stellar reviews, begins in San Diego, where Ruth Nolan works as an executive for RyCon, a company that supplies contractors to support the military in Iraq. She sees her own son, Robbie, enlist in the Marines and take two tours of duty in Iraq. She must put on a good face, given her work and all the ex-military in the company.
Mother and son, alone together in San Diego, tackle life head on. Ruth, competitive and ambitious, helped grow RyCon as she tried to help Robbie with his demons, including depression. But Robbie resists Ruth, whose demands and standards are not a good fit for him. They butt heads in what feels like all-too-familiar, perhaps inescapable family dynamics.
We spoke with Marro about writing “Casualties,” a novel cited for its beautiful and moving portrayal of mother, son and grief.
Q: The mother-son relationship is fertile ground. How were you able to achieve that palpable tension between Robbie and Ruth?
Marro: These relationships are the biggest stories of our lives. If nothing else, they leave their imprint both as a child and as a parent. It was surprisingly easy for me to access that dynamic. I felt I had an ear for it and am attuned to it. I am a parent and I have witnessed many parents and children, have heard how sons talk to their mothers. And I’ve been around a lot of young men as my son grew up. It was a very different thing than being around my brothers when we were growing up. So the how part of this question is answered by experience, though the relationship between Robbie and Ruth is much much different. Also, I wrote many scenes that never saw the light of day in this book, when Robbie was much younger. The parts we see came from parts I wrote that we don’t see.
Q: Another compelling conflict is Ruth’s desire to flee her New Hampshire home as soon as she can get a job and get out, versus Robbie’s strong desire to go back to New Hampshire, especially after his wartime service. Both characters’ drives, though opposing, come from a similar need for separation. Was this conflict something you set out to explore?
Marro: Ruth wants to peel out of there as a very young woman and Robbie wants to go back at about the same age. There are little breaks from your family as you go along, but when you are of age, that’s when the biggest break comes.
Home is what you leave and it’s always what you carry with you. It’s also what you need at different times in your life. Ruth never really felt at home and wanted to make a home somewhere. Yet there’s a softer part of her when she speaks of her brother and grandmother.
But with Robbie, the need is to go back to New Hampshire, the place that felt like home. I’m thinking more that he’s going back to reconnect with himself and a good part of his life, and he’s thinking it will help him in some way. For him, it’s more of a refuge. He wants to go to the last place he felt safe. When he left San Diego, he joined the Marines and they became his family and his home.
Q: Few first novels get published. Yours did. Can you talk about the steps that led to publication of “Casualties”?
Marro: So many people say the first one you write never sees the light of day. Over 10 years I worked on this novel and I can count two other novels worth of pages that I wrote and took out. I’ve tried to write it more than once. I had to put it away for a while and ask myself, when finally returning to it — Is there anything here? It called me back. That led to a better draft. Six hundred pages went away in the process and my husband said, “All right, just go ahead and finish it.” Also, I should add that I’m a demon for closure. When I start something I can’t move on to another project till I finish the one I’m working on.
Q: How did you come to your fine ending?
I had found what I thought was the ending. But my agent pushed me further. She said she wanted a better sense of a chance of resolution, that there is a life after all that had happened. That a reader can more readily speculate about what comes next. With that in mind I went back and this ending materialized and I liked it better.
Q: Ruth is rescued from a dire situation. Why was that essential to your story?
The reason I put Ruth in some pretty rough moments is that her self awareness is not that acute. You want someone to take over the punishment you can’t give yourself. That would be the character Casey. And I thought that Casey’s rescue of Ruth showed his soft streak.
Q: How did Ruth and Casey’s road trip serve you as a storyteller?
From a storyteller’s perspective, they are each on a journey and the road trip helped me to structure the book. It gave me space and time. Felt very natural. I’ve personally taken long road trips at different times in my life and even the most boring one left me with a different sense of the world from when I started out. And there’s nothing quite like closed quarters to bring people out fast. There’s an almost physical friction that wears away the coverings we put on everybody. Also I like that element of being in another world — you’re going through it but not really in it.
Q: Finally, what’s it like, coming home with this book?
Marro: It’s completely emotional. For me, it was always something I had hoped to be able to do. Everything I finished here in San Diego got started in New Hampshire where I grew up and in Rockport, the place I think of as my second home. The first idyllic experience I ever had happened in Rockport. I have so much connection in my heart, even though I haven’t lived there for years. Everybody back home knew what I was trying to do. This is really a coming home deal for me. I celebrate that.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur