Tag Archives: domestic violence

A hauntingly beautiful, courageous, yet painful composition

“Skipping Stones,” by Penny Lauer. CreateSpace. 384 pages. $15.00 trade paper, Kindle ebook $8.99

This is a painful book: painful because it is sensitive and courageous. In dealing with a young boy’s multiple crises –  the loss of his mother, the tormenting tenuousness of his long-absent father’s overtures, and the horrifying abusiveness of Uncle Steve, in whose care Josh has been placed – Penny Lauer has not spared the reader her main character’s pain. Nor has she glanced away from the pain suffered by Steve’s wife and children. And yet there is something hauntingly beautiful about this prose composition that fully engages our sympathy.  LauerFrontCover

We meet Josh shortly after he has lost his mother, Becky, who died in a bicycle accident for which Josh feels responsible. A troubled soul, Becky had determined years back that it would be best for Josh and for her if she divorced her husband, Sam. It’s not clear at first what made their relationship such a mismatch. Readers discover that Becky suffered from severe depression, and that coping with it sometimes took all of her strength. However, she was a courageous fighter and fully devoted to Josh. In fact, the bicycle mishap stemmed from her determination to overcome her fears and frailty.

Having anticipated the need to prepare for Josh’s future without her, Becky had documented her wish that Josh become part of her sister Jess’s family in the case of her death or incapacity. Little did she know the twisted home life that Jess and her children led under Steve’s reign of terror. Pride and fear mixed to keep Jess chained to a life of virtual slavery, of constant insults, and of harsh beatings. Her children had some understanding of what was happening, but no way to help her. Mother and children, in fact, had developed a conspiracy of silence. They lived a lie.

A flashback chapter summarizes the courtship and early years of marriage between Jess and Steve, revealing the step by step process by which the naïve and overwhelmed Jess became first an appendage to Steve’s egocentric manipulations and eventually a victim, her individuality submerged under the weight of his sadistic expectations.

Penny_Lauer  

Josh walks into this domestic nightmare, unprepared and defenseless. But not altogether so. The quality of love he had received from his mother, the spirit of freedom that she had instilled in him, and her therapeutic reverence for nature that he had internalized gave Josh resilience and fortitude. Still, he is only a boy.

As Steve becomes more and more erratic and cruel, Sam becomes more and more committed to rebuilding his relationship with Josh. However, Steve’s overpowering jealousy cuts off communication between father and son.  Ultimately, Sam’s questioning of Jess about “what’s wrong” and Steve’s creation of a police state within the home (he cancels Jess’s credit cards and takes away her car keys) drive Jess closer and closer to taking a stand and tearing down the web of lies she has spun to hide the truth about how she and her children live under Steve’s tyranny. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 2, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the Naples edition for January 3, and the Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition for January 17, click here Florida Weekly – Lauer 1 and here Florida Weekly – Lauer 2

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BOOK BEAT 50 – Nancy R. Koerner

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   July 25-31, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

You might have known her as Nancy R. Holtzman, part of the musical ensemble that played Southwest Florida venues as Celestial Harp & Flute since moving here in 2001, when the flute half of the team needed to attend to aging parents. Now, Nancy R. Koerner is making her reputation as the author of the life-based novel called “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise.” The novel has three centers of interest: the effect of the 1970s counterculture on an adventurous young woman, the natural marvels of a relatively unknown Central American country, and the psychology of abuse. 

Koerner wrote the story from 1991 through 1995, then found a trade publisher who went out of business before bringing out the book. For a long time she shelved the project. Life, including a major accident, got in the way. But some ten years after putting it aside she revived it, further revised it, and has now made it available through lulu.com and also through standard and online booksellers.

“Belize Survivor” follows the adventures of an idealist young woman, Alexis Dubois, who is far less worldly and far less informed that she believes. Influenced by the 1960s and 1970s interest in communal living, back-to-nature lifestyles, and other anti-establishment fashions, Alexis travels the counterculture capitals and by-ways, slowly maturing without losing her sense of adventure and her desire for personal freedom and fulfillment. The first third of the novel is a wonderfully evocative tour of the places and passions of the flower children, including Key West and Northern California.  

Alexis goes to Belize seeking Eden, a utopian lifestyle, but she finds instead the darker side of Paradise: earthquake, flood, fire, hurricane – and most of all the darker side of human nature embodied in a brutal husband, Max Lord. The seeds of this character’s decline into a sadistic abuser are not clearly perceived by Alexis, who seems to be avoiding facing up to what is obvious to the reader. But once she and her husband are in Belize, where Alexis is isolated and helpless, things begin to unravel.

When Koerner (and her surrogate, Alexis) first went to Belize some thirty years ago, it was largely unknown and unspoiled. Much of that primitive, unspoiled beauty is captured in Koerner’s evocative descriptions. Indeed, evocation of place through vivid imagery and cultural atmosphere is one of the book’s major strengths. Another is the careful building and maintaining of suspense. There is always a reason to keep turning the pages.

In writing the novel, Koerner tapped into the submerged emotions of her own experiences as an abuse victim. She came to realize that she had not fully addressed the issues, which she is now doing under professional guidance.

The teller of an intimate story, Koerner felt that there were aspects of it that she could not render effectively in the first person. It needed the distancing and relative objectivity of the third person perspective. The third person approach also enabled her to better render the secondary characters.

One of the problems with the choice is that Koerner succumbs to the temptation to go too far with one secondary character. Koerner’s extended treatment of Max Lord’s South African upbringing, interesting in itself, takes readers away from Alexis too long and makes too obvious the psychological seeds of later complications. Such a digression would be unlikely to happen in a first person narration. But this is a minor quibble.

As one might imagine, Alexis wishes to escape the tortures of abuse. Complicating her decision is the growing shadow of self-doubt and her sense of responsibility to the two children she and Max have brought into the world. How Alexis handles these issues, which I won’t give away, lends compelling complication to the latter third of the novel.

About the book as the source for further projects, Koerner writes, “a New York producer has picked me up, and we’re already engaged in doing a documentary. The purpose of this film is to 1) promote a great vicarious adventure to the aging-flower-children-baby-boomers, 2) to expose and therefore further the righteous cause against domestic violence, both national and international, and 3) garner interest with big investors to launch a full-length Hollywood film or a TV series based on the book.”

Because the twenty-year span of the story contains many, many short episodes, the producer sees the possibility of a long-term, ongoing series like “Lost.”

Whatever its future in other media, “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise” is a remarkable first novel both in style and substance.

 Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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