Rebecca Rotert reading
Prairie Lights — July 9 at 7 p.m.
When determining who is fit to become a mother, nature requires far less than society. Nature needs a woman to have a womb and an active menstrual cycle. Society demands money, time, sobriety and parent-teacher association volunteerism.
Rebecca Rotert’s debut novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, is a literary page-turner with lovely prose and heart-wrenching relationships. It presents a singer on the brink of something big — be it fame, self-destruction or both. The singer’s name is Naomi, dysfunctional mother to Sophia, whose own name comes from a story of love and loss.
Rotert gives voice to them both, evolving the story through back-and-forth perspectives from the daughter and mother. The reader experiences Chicago in the 1960s through the eyes of 10-year-old Sophia — a lonely, list-keeping, nuclear bomb-fearing girl.
We get to know 1950s Kansas through a young woman who felt unwelcome by her family. Naomi’s parents had too many other kids who had promise. Naomi was just the troublemaker, one who had to run away from home after causing some pretty major trouble with an influential banker’s privileged daughter.
Society has never been simple, and Rotert picks an excellent era to showcase how complicated and stupid our rules are. An unready mother can’t justify an abortion, despite causing severe pain and emotional abandonment. Sophia constantly questions whether her mother loves her, basking in those moments when she feels like she’s her mother’s favorite. An only child like Sophia would unquestionably be the favorite in our helicopter-parenting, Facebook profile-pic times.
But Naomi has to leave everyone that she loves, Sophia knows. The moment Sophia tells her mother, “I love you,” the reader begins to fear Sophia’s real abandonment.
Thankfully, Sophia has other adults who care for her. She was born to a family that she couldn’t have, but her mother provided her with her own chosen family, and Rotert crafts these characters with feeling.
Rita and Sister Idalia are two friends who helped get Naomi to Chicago and the stage. Jim, a photographer with a love for historic architecture, is perhaps the most important family member. He’s the father figure who would never intentionally leave Sophia, and an unsung hero to Naomi herself.
After hearing that this book was set in 1960s Chicago, I expected the violent terrorism captured in famous civil rights-era photographs. But the turbulence written in this book is fit for even today’s 10-year-old to read — a softer, gentler version dreamt up for bright-eyed progressive Millennials. Nevertheless, the changing times of the ‘60s provides the right vehicle to explore tensions in race, gender, single working motherhood and general urban renewal.
Throughout the novel, Naomi shows Sophia her tender, almost caretaker side (what mother hasn’t made a mushy potato salad?). However, society says this is not enough: Real love requires work, commitment and enough self-love to be able to focus on personal strength and child development.