When 80-year-old Mary Jo Bradford overhears TV news about a wave of women reporting sexual harassment and assault by powerful men, her increasingly unfiltered brain drops a bomb on her family:
“It happened to me,” she blurts. “Me, too.”
The rape of one small-town girl, and the lifetime of lies and evasions that follow, are the subject of Vancouver author Jessica Barksdale Inclán’s searing new novel, “What the Moon Did.” Flashing back to Iowa during the repressive 1950s, Inclán follows the traumatic reverberations of one violent act across many lives and several generations.
“I am very fascinated by cause and effect,” Inclán said. “I wanted to take this one event from the past and watch how it rippled through this family’s life. I wanted to explore all the people that got affected by it.”
Mary Jo is a shy, awkward 12-year-old when a family friend forces himself upon her at a party. Shocked and terrified, she keeps the secret as instructed.
But when she starts to show, her humiliated parents only make excuses of the he-was-drunk variety while also scheming a public explanation for the unexpected baby.
“Cleaning up the mess, that’s her strong suit,” Inclán said of Mary Jo’s unflappable mother. “I don’t believe in secrets, but I can see the desire to package it up and put it away. I think she and her husband battle their feelings, with the strictures of society all around them.”
The vividly drawn characters in “What the Moon Did” are nearly all fighting their feelings, especially the rapist’s wife, whose dependence and ambivalence prevent her from walking out. Mary Jo’s vulnerability and desperation lead to a lifelong strategy of attaching herself to protective men while sadly shunning her unwanted child.
“Pre-baby-boomer women endured coming-of-age at a time when they couldn’t get their own bank account or bank loan, their own credit card, couldn’t wear pants to school,” Inclán said. “It was a very traditional, patriarchal society.”
No character’s inner life is left unexplored in “What the Moon Did,” not even the charming town grocer who patiently grooms his victims while remaining a popular pillar of the local community. While we are privy to some of Roger Banfield’s inner struggles, recognizing himself as a predator is never one of them.
“I think of him as a very genteel sociopath, and I don’t think sociopaths ever actually learn,” Inclán said. “He has learned a lot of techniques to be successful in society, and he does not see the consequences of his actions.”
Inclán, the repository of her own family’s complicated history and memorabilia, said Roger’s character was inspired by one charismatic figure who kept appearing in old photographs. A successful and admired businessman, he was also the subject of unsavory rumors.
“I just started noticing him, always there,” she said. “And what is he doing with his hand there?”
While his behavior might get challenged today, she said, in her saga that begins in 1950s Iowa, all the adults close ranks around stability and status quo.
But the younger generation spots clues and develops hunches. Mary Jo’s brother cannot forget something he saw. The mystery child, who grows up unaware of his real identity, keeps noticing his uncanny resemblance to his friend, the grocer’s son.
“He always knew something was wrong,” Inclán said. “Children always know when something is wrong.”
In “What the Moon Did,” decades pass, characters grow up and grow old — and some die — while secrets inch closer and closer to revelation.
Start at home
While many family stories were swirling in her head, her mother’s struggles with dementia are what really launched “What the Moon Did,” Inclán said.
She said she has been horrified — yet fascinated — to watch recent layers of her mother’s memory disappear and older, forgotten layers resurface.
“I have learned a lot of things I didn’t know,” Inclán said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we talk about incessantly, the stories we forget and the stories we hide.”
As she wrote, Inclán was mindful of the recent rise of DNA-driven, genealogical sleuthing that keeps uncovering uncomfortable family secrets.
“People all over the place are finding that they’re not related to the people they thought they were,” she said.
A small percentage of proceeds from sales of “What the Moon Did” will go to the Planned Parenthood national organization, Inclán said. Mary Jo’s story of shameful, hidden pregnancy and lonely lifelong secrets might have played out differently now, a time when women, while still facing high hurdles on the way to real societal equality, have made significant progress, she said.
Equality must start at home, Inclán said.
“Every single household needs equality between men and women,” she said. “Right at home, children grow up learning that there is a power structure.”