In Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s debut novel, The Crocodile Bride, she writes: “In the clear water, a school of minnows scattered like arrows. Sand drifted and swirled. The water just past the yellow rope was a strange, shadowy green. How thrilling to know that there, so close, only a few breast strokes away, was a whole other world.” And it this whole other world that Pedersen unfurls in the book, an immersive work as shimmering with details as it is with mystery.
Split into four parts — Stones and Spiders, Sea Anemones, Windows, and The Crocodile Bride — The Crocodile Bride follows the perspectives of three women in the Turner family, based primarily in Fingertip, Louisiana: Catherine Murphy, Aunt Lou, and Sunshine Turner. Readers gain access to their lives, their generational trauma, and the stories they tell to keep themselves, and their families, afloat.
Sunshine is a young imaginative girl, going through puberty, living in Fingertip — a village with dirt as red as blood and one main road. She primarily lives with her father, Billy Turner, in the family’s yellow house. She can often be found across the street, playing at her Aunt Lou’s house or hanging out with her cousin, JL. As mentioned, Sunshine is going through puberty, so everything begins to change for her — especially what she wears and how she feels about her body as seen in this passage: “She felt guilty that they [her breasts] were a part of her–as though by having them at all, they’d invited what happened with Billy. She wished she could remove them, somehow — unfasten her buttons and pull them out.”
Along with managing her feelings about herself, she dodges her father’s “storms” as she and Aunt Lou call them. About her father’s moods, she says that “In the yellow house, it could rain indoors even when out over Fingertip, the weather was clear.” Sunshine deals with this while attempting to care for her father and trying to be a grown-up.
Aunt Lou is Billy’s sister and takes care of Sunshine as if she were her own. The book flashes back to when Aunt Lou was a child, and again to her teenagerhood and adulthood, caring for JL and Sunshine as best she can. Pedersen writes of Aunt Lou’s yearning to care for her niece: “Sunshine was young enough that she was still sweet. ‘Your house feels good,’ she sometimes told Lou, and Lou loved knowing she could provide that for her — something good-feeling.”
Aunt Lou is a strong, intuitive woman, of the many showcased in The Crocodile Bride, yet because of the traumas of her past, she finds it difficult to let people in, even her beloved fiancé, Nash. Of Lou and her struggles, Pedersen says, “She had learned more than modesty; she had learned how to hide.”
Catherine Murphy (later Catherine Turner) is Sunshine’s grandmother, and the mother to Aunt Lou and Billy. So many of the stories that Billy tells Sunshine originate with Catherine. Most notably, she’s the first orator of the Crocodile Bride story. It’s told that her stories “arrived in her imagination like familiar old friends she didn’t remember ever making in the first place. There was a deep black bayou with an unfathomably hungry crocodile. There was a pair of knowing hands.” Like Aunt Lou, Catherine is a strong woman, often finding her strength in quieter, more internal ways.
Deliciously descriptive, Pedersen does not skimp on details in this book, as when she wrote of the yellow house: “The soft wet earth kept the house cooler and slaked the thirst of the enormous oak — grown so large its fingers scraped at Sunshine’s window on one side and stretched out across Only Road on the other.” This type of detailing builds the village of Fingertip, Louisiana in a way that makes readers feel like they’re really there — from the blood red of the mud, and the unending sticky heat, to the bumpy snout and jagged teeth of an alligator beyond the yellow rope. The novel’s imagery is so striking that it’s easy to fall inside of the details and drink them up, until one becomes a third party floating among the June bugs.
The characters are this story’s shining attraction. All of them are so complex, and their voices so strong, that the piece feels less like a book and more like a memory. Each character is complete on their own, and watching them find their own voices and work through their traumas is extremely cathartic. This extends, especially, to Sunshine. She’s allowed to be a kid, yet her own traumas and issues are not downplayed. All the while, she’s bearing the full brunt of her family’s baggage, too.
This baggage ranges from domestic abuse and suicide, to depression, child sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. There is a lot of pain and confusion in this book. Perhaps Pedersen puts it best in part IV: The Crocodile Bride, when she states:
“That it was history itself — a chain of grief, passed from generation to generation. From a father who destroyed all he touched, perhaps even from his father or mother before him. From a war fought by a sensitive, rooster-loving grandfather she’d never met. From silences and heartaches in a past impossible to visit. A grief with no words to give it shape, to give it light.”
Yet the characters themselves bring light, love, and happiness to one another, and to readers. Though there is pain, there is equal parts joy and humanity. Overall, The Crocodile Bride is a very human and intricately constructed novel that should be on bookshelves for years to come.
The Crocodile Bride
By Ashleigh Bell Pedersen
Hub City Press
Published May 10th, 2022