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Up From the Blue


Up From the Blue

We meet Tillie Harris as she is in 1991, just 34 weeks pregnant but experiencing contractions. In an unpacked apartment in a new city, she can't even call her husband, Simon, who is mid-flight to Paris to choose art pieces in his new position at an art museum. Terrified, Tillie approaches the row house next door where a stranger invites her in to use the telephone. The problem is that Tillie truly has no one to call. She doesn't even know the name of the local hospital and hasn't found a new doctor yet. At a loss, she dials the person to whom she normally would be least likely to reach out --- her father.

Tillie and her father, General Harris, haven't spoken in years. However, it’s just a matter of moments before the general takes charge, calling a cab to take her to a local hospital. As Tillie tries to negotiate the line at the emergency room registration desk, her father appears. As they wait, Tillie's mind wanders. Her memories take her back to 1975, the year she was eight years old and her mother vanished.

The Harris family lived on the air force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their neighbors "didn't know exactly what the trouble was inside our home… We were still of the belief that it would pass, that my dad could solve everything, that all of us would survive." On the day Tillie remembers, she is at home for biting other kids once again. She watches her brother leave for school, asking if he has checked on their mother, who hasn't been out of her bedroom in four days even though their father is away on a business trip. When Tillie asks if they should tell someone, Phil says they'll just wait for their dad to get home that night. Inside, Tillie must walk through the piles of dirty laundry, garbage and toys that cover the floor. 

Tillie's mother is not like the other women on the base. At times, she strokes on glittery eye shadow to dance and sing throughout the house. But at other times, like now, she lies, still and blank-faced, unable to speak or rise. When her father comes home, he's angry at his wife. But his loud demands for answers are fruitless. He feeds his children and scrubs the house while she cries. At bedtime, a miracle occurs when Momma enters Tillie's room to tuck her in, carrying the special ruby cup. As Tillie sips the hot drink, she tells her she is trying, for Tillie's sake. 

The situation worsens at home, with General Harris trying to gain control over his wife and failing. Meanwhile, the family must relocate so he can continue his job designing guided missiles at the Pentagon. During the move, at her father's insistence, Tillie goes to stay with his secretary, Anne, who she despises and who so obviously looks down on her mother. Anne can't abide Tillie's no-rules approach to life, and is appalled when Tillie wanders outside in her pajamas. Tillie yearns for her mother, so she’s thrilled when it's time to fly to her new house. But Momma is gone. When Tillie asks repeatedly where her mother is, she gets no answer. Chillingly, when her father speaks about his work, he also implies his attitude about the people around him: "There's no room for error." 

UP FROM THE BLUE is a rare melding of gorgeous prose with a riveting and suspenseful plot. Although the tale of love between mother and daughter is certainly not a light read, but heavy with a helpless and foreboding sorrow, the characters and situation are completely gripping, making it a surprisingly fast read. Characters are three-dimensional, allowing readers to discover, along with Tillie, shocking and more subtle truths about her life. The story-within-a-story structure offers a solid and satisfying resolution to this fascinating read.

Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon ( on September 21, 2010

Up From the Blue
by Susan Henderson

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0061984035
  • ISBN-13: 9780061984037