Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Battered woman grows in 'The Shade'



By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Halfway into Sheila Williams' The Shade of My Own Tree, the reader has an epiphany: "Oh, that's why she doesn't leave the creep."

She is the abused woman. The creep is the abuser. And Sheila Williams, she's the Newport author who debuted last year with Dancing on the Edge of the Roof and follows it up with Shade, an enlightening novel about surviving a life of domestic violence. .

It's not autobiographical, Williams says, but you'd never know it, given her insights.

"I did a lot of research, especially at the Kentucky Domestic Violence Center in Frankfort," Williams says. "But I also kept my ear to the ground and did a lot of soul searching. I asked myself a lot of questions and then went looking for the answers."

Shade is the story of Opal Sullivan, married for 15 years to Ted, who gave her this kind of life: "My arms were always bruised. One August, I wore turtleneck sweaters to work for two weeks until the marks of Ted's handprints faded."

But she stays with him. She has daughter Imani to think of. She has her own survival to think of - Ted promised to kill her if she leaves. She has nowhere to go, no savings, no friends or relatives to turn to for help - in the classic syndrome, the abuser has systematically isolated the abused.

That's why she stays. It's a trap.

She stays, that is, until she looks in the mirror one day and has her own epiphany: No makeup, straggly hair, lifeless eyes, fat lip, scabbed-over cuts, cigarette burns, still more bruises. She sees a woman who has given up on life.

That's when she heads for a shelter and begins healing. That process takes Shade to a new level - Opal's journey from cowering victim to independent woman. Or, as she calls herself, an OBBWA - Old Black Broad With An Attitude.

Along the journey, you meet a nicely drawn cast of eccentrics. But through it all, it's Opal you want to cheer for. Like when she buys a house - an old broken-down model just like her, she says - that deserves a second chance. You want to cheer when she opens it to other women in flight. You want to cheer when she remains firm in the face of Ted's threats.

Williams carries this off in an elegantly sparse style that's laced, incredibly enough, with humor. "... I didn't want it so dark it would send readers running for medication."

They won't. More than likely, they'll go running to friends and insist they read it.

Review

The Shade of My Own Tree

By Sheila Williams

Ballantine Books; $12.95, 244 pagesSignings

• 7 p.m. Friday, Barnes & Noble, Newport on the Levee

• Noon Saturday, Books 'N' More, Newport Shopping Center, 1709 Monmouth St.

• 7 p.m. Sept. 3, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Edwards and Madison roads, Norwood

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E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com




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