Cover image for Nearer than the sky : a novel
Nearer than the sky : a novel
Greenwood, T. (Tammy)
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
306 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Sequel to: Breathing water.
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



In those days, there were no words to describe the nature of my mother's tales. No diagnosis for her tendency toward fiction. No names for women who make accidents happen to their children. No terms for imaginary heroes. And so we listened to my mother's stories in silence and tried to believe.

Indie Brown is a woman haunted by a childhood she'd rather forget in T. Greenwood's luminous and terrifying second novel.

As an adult, Indie has moved far away from her parents, and created a new life with her long time companion, Peter, a sensitive and steadfast partner. Together they have forged a simple and happy life in the back woods of Maine. But one autumn evening, a late night phone call from her younger sister sends Indie reeling back into the chaos of her troubled family, and she reluctantly returns home.

It is there, back in the mountains of Arizona, that events from her past are suddenly and painfully illuminated. From her mother's disturbing relationship with her younger sister to the death of her brother, Indie is assaulted by the nightmares of her childhood. And after a sudden and unpredictable turn of events, she is ultimately forced to reevaluate her relationships with her mother, her sister, and with Peter.

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, the elusive and horrific mental disorder which causes afflicted mothers to make their own children ill, comes to life in this tragic yet beautiful story. With the same lyrical prose displayed in her award-winning debut novel, Breathing Water , Greenwood once again takes on brutal subject matter with sensitivity and grace.

Author Notes

T. Greenwood was born in Vermont. She is the author of Breathing Water and the 1999 recipient of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Award. She lives in Ocean Beach, California with her husband, Patrick Stewart.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A novel that opens with the narrator's childhood memory of being struck by lightning starts the reader off with expectations of something unusual and ominous. Greenwood, the author of the prizewinning Breathing Water (1999), doesn't disappoint. Indie Brown, living in the woods of Maine with a gentle, nurturing man, may seem to be far away from her Arizona roots, but the connections to the past can't be avoided. A summons from her sister who needs help with their mother brings her physically back to the place where she was formed and, in many ways, that she has never left. Her mother, the sister (who exhibits the same bizarre, dangerous behavior as their mother), the memory of their brother, and the lightning that has left her feeling that she can "smell" the truth are always with her. There is no comfort in her mother's house, only struggles with the past. The return to Maine brings both an understanding of herself and hope. A complicated story of love and abuse told with a directness and intensity that pack a lightning charge. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

A lyrical investigation into the unreliability and elusiveness of memory centers Greenwood's second novel (after Breathing Water), the intriguing tale of Miranda ("Indie") Brown's examination of her baffling and disconcerting childhood memories and of her coming to terms with a strange psychological disorder. Indie, at 33, is living a contented life in Echo Hollow, Maine, with Peter, her lover of 14 years, who owns a restaurant/art film house. Everything changes when she receives a telephone call from her youngerÄand prettierÄsister, Lily: their mother has been hospitalized, with the diagnosis of poison, possibly self-administered. Since Lily can't leave her gravely ill infant daughter, Violet, who lives in an oxygen tent, Indie takes Ma from the hospital back home to the Arizona mountains. As Indie starts to reflect on events from her past that continue to affect the present, she becomes aware of how varieties of the Munchausen syndrome (disorders that cause sufferers to induce illness in themselves and in others) have shaped her family's lives. What really happened when four-year-old Indie was struck by lightning, and why exactly did Indie's and Lily's older brother die? What caused Lily's many childhood illnesses, and what about baby Violet's? Lily was her mother's favorite, while Indie grew up attached to her father, in whose bar she learned to shoot pool and drink too much. She believes that her encounter with lightning gave her special abilities to "taste sounds" and to catch "at least a glimpse of the truth" that eludes others. As her personal history reveals itself, Indie may find herself no less haunted by the truth than by falsehood. Greenwood can be coy with mysterious hints, but the kaleidoscopic heart of the story is rich with evocative details about its heroine's inner life. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Greenwood won the 1999 Sherwood Anderson Award for Best First Novel for Breathing Water. Her compelling new work should win similar acclaim. The novel opens with a flashback to the narrator, then four years old, sitting in a metal cart in the grocery store parking lot while her mother carries the baby back inside the store for a forgotten item. A storm comes up, and Indie's grocery cart is struck by lightning. But to hear her mother tell the story, she turned her back on Indie for only a second, and the child would have surely died had her mother not acted quickly. Indie, brother Benny, and especially baby sister Lily have many close calls throughout their childhood. Now Lily is a mother, and her daughter Violet is plagued with many illnesses and has come close to death more than once in her first year of life. Is Lily re-enacting her own childhood? Indie must try to make sense of both the past and the present, and quickly. Highly recommended for public libraries and for academic libraries collecting contemporary fiction.DDebbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One     I understand lightning. I am not afraid of the rumble, gentle as an empty stomach but powerful enough to shake the ground beneath my feet. I'm not afraid when the sky opens up and blinds my eyes with rain. And when its cold white fingers reach down, looking for someone to touch, I barely shudder anymore. I have an agreement with the sky. An understanding.     It happened when my mother ran back inside the Foodmart with my baby sister, Lily, on her hip. She'd forgotten to buy baby aspirin and Lily had a fever. I was in the shopping cart; at four years old I was still small enough to fit in the front basket with my mother's purse. She parked me and the groceries next to our orange Chevy Nova and said, "Indie, honey, I'll be right back. Don't you move." As she hurried back across the parking lot, I busied myself with a package of cookies I found poking up from one of the bags. I remember they had chocolate stripes and holes in the middle I could fit my thumbs through. The chocolate melted on my hands. It was 1970, August, and our first summer in the mountains of northern Arizona. We didn't know then about the monsoons.     I can only imagine what the other Foodmart shoppers must have thought about me out there in the parking lot like any other bag of groceries. No different from an abandoned carton of ice cream, cardboard growing soggy in the sun. Maybe if someone had paid more attention then it would have stopped with this. If someone had wheeled me into the Foodmart, down the aisle where my mother must have stood browsing the shelves of medicine as if the bottles were magazines she might like to read, then maybe she would have realized that you don't leave four-year-old babies in shopping carts in parking lots. Not even when your youngest has the pink raspberry flush of a fever.     But no one did. After the electric doors closed behind her clean white heels, I sat eating cookies while the other Foodmart customers bustled about opening trunks and wiping the crusty noses of their own children. Every now and then one of them would notice me and smile, probably at the chocolate mess I'd made, but not one person looked for my mother. They must have thought she was inside the Nova somewhere, preparing the car seat or looking for a lost toy.     I knew she would come back. I wasn't afraid of that. I do remember the sudden chill in the air, though, and the long shadows that fell across the parking lot as storm clouds moved across the sky. I remember the sound of shopping-cart wheels moving quickly across the pavement, and the first few drops of rain on my face.     I must have eaten five or six of those cookies, each one growing soggier and soggier in the drizzle. I remember the way my hair tasted. The way the rain beaded up on my bare arms. The smell of wet pavement.     The first rumbles of thunder could have just been my stomach. It could have been hunger instead of a threat from the sky. But then the thunder rumbled again. Louder this time. Insistent. But it wasn't until the sky exploded, threatening and angry, until it opened up and the rain came down in sharp slivers, soaking the brown paper bags and the cookie in my hand, that I started to feel afraid. The next crack of thunder made the shopping cart roll a little, and I felt panic for the first time, the dull thudding of my heart, the heat rising to my ears, as I looked toward the doors of the Foodmart in the distance.     Every time the doors opened, I expected to see her. But it was only a Foodmart cashier in a red apron, a lady with a yellow umbrella opening above her like butterfly wings, a man with a long gray beard and a bag brimming with green leaves. And then, just as the heat in my ears started to bring tears, the glass doors opened up again, and I saw my mother in her crisp polka-dot sundress and Lily still safely nestled on her hip.     "Ma," I cried. Relief like cool rain.     She stood in the doorway, not moving. Not coming. I watched her struggle with the baby aspirin bottle, and the soft puff of cotton inside. Through the rain, I watched her put the tiny orange pill on Lily's tongue. Watched Lily shake her head. Tighten her lips over my mother's finger. I watched her kiss Lily's head, brush her white-blond curls out of her eyes, and adjust her position on her hip.     Thunder rolled through my body, rolled under my skin like waves. She looked up from Lily then and remembered me. What happened next lingers in my memory like an electric current that refuses to leave the body. The details circulate from fingertips to fingertips, toe to nose to toe.     The thunder cracked again; it sounded like a slap. Like a giant hand hitting skin. I watched my mother's steps quicken and then I put my hands up to my ears and closed my eyes. One ... two ... three . I imagined I was counting my mother's steps toward me. Four ... five and I opened my eyes.     Everything was white. Metallic and cold. My skin felt like it had been stung by a thousand bees. And my heart was suddenly still. No beating, only buzzing. Only the hum of an electric lullaby.     When I could see again, I realized that I was no longer in the shopping cart. I was lying facedown on the hood of the Nova, staring down at the spilled groceries on the ground. At a hundred pink tablets of baby aspirin, at the polka dots of my mother's dress. The shopping cart was in the next parking space, and glowing red.     The rain wasn't coming down so hard anymore. But I was cold, freezing cold, and I couldn't hear anything except for the buzzing of my body. When my mother's free hand found me, I shrank away from her touch. Her wide blue eyes grew wider, and Lily cried. When she finally spoke, her words tasted like sour milk. And Lily's cries were the bitter of unripe berries.     They say that two things can happen to you if you are struck by lightning. The first is that you will die. The second is that you won't die and that you will be left with few (if any) injuries, no lingering symptoms or souvenirs from your encounter. But even now, so many years later, I can't hear well with my left ear, and with the other one I can still taste sounds. Music and wind. Voices and lies.     My mother says it didn't happen this way at all. She says that she was inside the Nova, buckling Lily into her car seat. Finding my lost Crissy doll. She says she would never have left me alone in the parking lot. But I remember the click of her heels, the pinkish orange aspirin melting in the rain. And when she tells the story her way, her words taste like asphalt. Like aspirin. Like anything but the truth.     My mother has never been able to take the blame. Not then and not later. The way she tells the story, she's the one who kept me from turning into a blackened version of my former self. The way she tells it, she saved my life. In her version of this story, of every story, she's always the hero.     In those days, there were no words to describe the nature of my mother's tales. No diagnosis for her tendency toward fiction. No names for women who make accidents happen to their children, no terms for imaginary heroes. And so we listened to my mother's stories in silence and tried to believe. That she brought my brother, Benny, back to life when he stopped breathing in his crib. That she saved me from the lightning. That Lily's illness was real instead of something Ma put inside of her. We listened in silence and waited for the words that might explain.     I understand lightning. I know the cold taste of light, the inevitable paralysis of its touch. I know how deceiving an empty sky can be, and I understand the consequences of thunder. But sometimes, I still dream the gentle thrill of electricity, and stand in open fields during storms with my arms raised. Because illumination of this intensity is apt to show you something you might not see otherwise. In the white cold light moments of a storm, you're bound to get at least a glimpse of the truth. Excerpted from Nearer Than the Sky by T. Greenwood. Copyright © 2000 by T. Greenwood. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.