Down and Out in Rhode Island

Book review: Down City, by Leah Carroll

Leah Carroll’s mother died when Leah was four years old, strangled in a motel room by two drug dealers with mafia connections to Rhode Island’s Patriarca crime family and a misguided paranoia. She’s then raised by her father and stepmother, with the ghost of her mother a constant haunting presence. Down City chronicles her childhood and adolescence with a jump into adulthood, focusing on her emerging sense of self as she struggles to learn more about the early deaths of both of her parents, why they had the troubles they did, and how who they were affected who she is.

I love a good coming of age story, and especially with the mysterious true crime aspect of her mother’s death, I was really excited about this one. An added bonus was her treatment of her home state of Rhode Island. She plays it up as a character itself, even as the feeling of the state, the personality, for lack of a better word, often gets written off thanks to its diminutive size.

Instead, as she points out, it’s more likely to be trotted out as an easy example of sizing up somewhere else, by likening some other thing, usually negatively, to the smallness of Rhode Island. But she creates a solid sense of place for the state and several of its very differently social structured towns, even if the portrayal does involve a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts (not necessarily a bad thing, to be fair.)

Written in direct, simple prose with an almost conversational tone, Carroll explores a familiar teenage angst that’s sure to resonate with many readers while she digs up and confronts the ghosts of her family’s past that have haunted  and shaped her entire life. The research she did into her parents’ lives and deaths was clearly cathartic for her, and she succeeds in creating a fleshed-out composition of both of her parents, flaws and strengths.

In that way, it’s a deserved tribute to these two troubled people who tried to do their best, despite addiction and depression. In describing her childhood, Carroll skillfully employs a child’s voice, relating scenes as she saw them then, less how an adult would interpret them, and that was a fitting touch for the story. It’s also not an easy feat, but she pulls it off well.

Ultimately, it felt too short and a bit too light for the kind of messages conveyed. Blurbs liken the book to Mary Karr’s memoirs, which deal with similar topics: children forced to grow up far too quickly and take care of parents who couldn’t take care of themselves in the throes of addiction and mental illness. Last year I read Karr for the first time, tearing through The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit at lightning speed. Although there are similarities in subject and style, Down City isn’t quite on parr with those confessional bildungsroman memoirs yet.

I kept thinking of what an impact this book could make as a Young Adult read, actually. I think the storytelling and themes would resonate most strongly with teens.

But it shows massive potential, I would absolutely give Carroll a chance again if I saw another title by her; she’s clearly a talented writer with a gift for journalistic research, a conviction for the truth, and a fearlessness in head-on confronting painful, difficult corners of her own past. I’ll be looking forward to what she writes in the future.

Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder
by Leah Carroll

published March 7, 2017 by Grand Central Publishing

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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