At night in the darkness of their childhood bedroom, Ellen and Beth would call to each other softly. The two sisters told each other everything that had happened during the day.
In Beth's words, "Nothing felt complete until I had related it to Ellen, to her sleeping presence in the other bed. During the day, we were each other's closest companions and spent hours making up games and stories in our secret hiding places in the woods, the attic, or the fields behind the house. In those days, Ellen always deferred to me, but as we grew older she developed her own interests. Still, we didn't grow apart. Instead we defined ourselves in terms of what the other one wasn't, as if our personalities flowed into vacancies the other left."The story of these two sisters, of the way their lives continue to flow together even as Ellen moves in and out of mental illness, is the subject of "Racing into the Dark."
Salt Laker Kate Woodworth wrote the book. It's her first published novel, though she won first place in the Utah Arts Council contest several years ago with a novel she hasn't published.
Woodworth's style is straightforward. No poetic phrases or analogies linger in your mind when you finish. However, the characters, their relationships and the story are very memorable. Her description of mental illness, especially, seems true.
Now Woodworth is about two-thirds through with a new book."Thematically it's the same as "Racing into the Dark," she says, "a story about a family. But this new one is lighter."
"Racing into the Dark" is dark. But satisfyingly so. It is nicely constructed. First Ellen tells a chapter, then Beth, then Ellen. Each casts a bit of light or shadow on the scene described before, then moves the story forward with revelations of her own.
Early on the reader believes that Ellen, who has managed to grow up and out of the family of her childhood, stands a good chance of making a family of her own.
Except. Except her husband is cheating on her and her pregnancies make her unstable and she keeps doing things - and Woodworth describes well how logical her actions seem to her - which land her in a mental hospital.
Former mental patients have told her she got Ellen right. Without crossing it herself, Woodworth says she has always realized "how close the line is," that line over which a woman steps when she decides to stay in bed and not take care of her children anymore.
Woodworth portrays Beth, the sane sister, as a woman who lives close to the line. Beth's youth with her sisters and parents is vivid in her mind. Sometimes it seems more real to her than her life with her husband and children.
Beth talks long distance to her mother every day. Time and again she goes back home to help Ellen. As her husband's impatience grows and the book builds to a conclusion, the reader fears Beth is as self-destructive as Ellen.
"Racing into the Dark" has two themes: Woodworth shows us how light are the lines that bind us to reality and how tightly we are tied to our families.