On Grieving and What Comes Next

Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake is a testament to coping with heartache

A telephone psychic told Elvis Babbitt, the 12-year-old narrator of Annie Hartnett’s debut novel Rabbit Cake, that she couldn’t be sure whether or not Elvis’s mom killed herself on purpose. She drowned while sleep-swimming, and that is all they can know. Intent would not materialize. It’s a tough lesson for a child to learn: Sometimes the most important questions are the ones least likely to be answered.

Over the course of Rabbit Cake, Elvis has a lot of questions that are not answered. When she is ten, her mother goes missing and is found, two months later, caught in a dam across state lines in Georgia, twelve miles from their hometown of Freedom, Alabama. Everyone in their family copes in different ways. Their dad begins wear their mom’s lipstick. Lizzie, her teenage older sister, lashes out at her friends and begins eating in her sleep. Elvis tries to take care of them.

The title itself comes cakes shaped like rabbits that Elvis’s mom would make on many special occasions. And they eventually turn into a coping mechanism, too, when Lizzie attempts to set the Guinness World Record for Most Rabbit Cakes Baked.

It is fitting that even the book’s title refers to a coping mechanism, as the novel’s focus is on the way these characters grieve and cope. Hartnett evokes this powerfully. She understands that one of the most difficult parts of the process is continuing to have the power to handle the daily obstacles required to keep oneself and those one cares about safe and healthy.

That is not, of course, how Elvis digests things. Hartnett tightrope walks over the gulf between what her character understands and what her audience will with remarkable dexterity. When Elvis is staying up late in order to supervise her sister in case she sleepwalks into the kitchen, it is clear both how necessary it seems to Elvis and how destructive it is in the long run. And she sometimes doesn’t have access to quite how troubling some of what she sees is.

She relays the information plainly and clearly.

“I found my sister drinking milk straight out of the carton. The milk had gone sour…I tried to take the milk carton from her but she wouldn’t loosen her grip. Some of the curdled milk splashed onto the floor, and not even [the dog] would lick it up.”

This is a tough image to handle. There is a youthful innocence woven into the fabric of language that cuts deeper. She is aware that her sister may get very sick from what she is doing, but the concerns are so factual, almost plain. She knows what food poisoning is but does not seem to know how bad it can be.

Outside of the Babbitt’s home, Freedom is a rich world. Some of the book’s most vibrant sections take place in the local zoo, where Elvis volunteers. There too the violent and scarring is often immediately juxtaposed with the endearing. In the beginning one chapter, she is describing the black bears at the zoo.

“Nacho and Yoyo had been raised as circus bears. We tried to treat them as wild animals now and never went into their enclosure when they weren’t locked in their sleeping cages. [A zoo employee] told me that sometimes you could catch Yoyo doing her dance routine, standing on her hind legs and rotating in a circle. Yoyo the Ballerina Bear had been her stage name. She’d been kept chained up when she wasn’t performing.”

Again, Elvis’s reportorial style of narration relays heartbreaking information to the reader without much fanfare, which only makes it hurt worse. Elvis is not given the luxury of staying naïve to the underbelly and neither is the reader.

The book’s limitations, sometimes, also spring from Elvis’s perspective. This comes through most obviously within the context of Lizzie’s and her father’s relationships. There is only so much a character can know about what another person won’t share with them, and her youth is a secondary limiting factor. It makes perfect sense, in that if Elvis did understand more about Lizzie’s relationship with her best friend it would be difficult to believe. But that does not make the lack of insight easier to swallow for the reader.

The book’s loose structure is provided by a grieving chart that a counselor at Elvis’s elementary school gives her. The counselor says it will take 18 months to complete the process and gives Elvis a two-month buffer to account for the space between when her mother went missing and when she was found. Elvis is a science-driven kid, and a structure like that makes sense to her. Eighteen months is a long time, but it is not the longest. It insists upon the existence of an unseen track, and it insists that at some point, the track will end.

In other words, it provides hope that there might be hope. In the face of all the bad that comes her way, the chart is always there to reassure her that, sometime in the future, she will feel better.

An end will come. For better or worse, an end will come.

Coming of Age at Harvard and in Hungary

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