“Freckled” by Toby Wilson Neal

I asked Jeremiah to review this book, realizing that since he grew up in Hawaii, he would offer a more informed perspective than I could. I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it. As an entrant in the “awful childhood memoir” category, it joins the greats. – Sarah White

Review by Jeremiah Cahill

 

Author Toby Wilson Neal subtitled her book Freckled as A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii, and I thought she might be exaggerating. Not so! I was born and raised in the Islands, and reading Neal’s work made me realize, by contrast, that I grew up…well, civilized. Oh, I endured similar stresses in a sometimes contentious racial environment, but not at such a young age and to the degree she did. I also had many stabilizing influences, while Neal had precious few.

To begin, the astute Foreword by John Wehrheim describes the social context on the island of Kaua’i, which the Wilson family stepped into as haole (non-native, white) outsiders. Wehrheim has also chronicled nearby Taylor Camp, and provides a link to graphic photos and a film looking back at the “hippie” compound.

 

To see photos and videos of Taylor Camp, visit John Wehrheim’s website

 

Neal’s parents’ compulsions center on surfing, and the island of Kaua’i provides great waves and uncrowded conditions. The price the family pays for surfing bliss includes homelessness, poverty, social isolation, substandard schooling, and various physical and psychological risks. Energetic and outgoing, eldest daughter Toby bears the brunt of her parents’ struggles.

Amid the chaos, this plucky, resilient child manages to survive successive troubles and emerge grappling for a better life. Not all her peers were so fortunate.

Initially I questioned the pace the book might set, based on Neal’s first happy recollection of being at the beach with her mom. That ends abruptly as Toby is yanked—literally by her hair—into the dysfunctional world of her parent’s anger, neglect, and substance abuse.

Facing conditions she’s often not old enough to understand, Toby channels much of her energy in directions that help her survive. Getaway destinations—real and imaginary—give her respite, as do frequent trips to local libraries. Early on, she develops a passion for reading. Books are her escape, whether holed up in a soggy rainforest tent or under the porch at Grandma’s place in California. Reading well beyond grade level becomes a main strength, helping her catch up following lapses in formal schooling and priming her for a career as a writer.

She’s also aided by her family’s unconventional but frequent spiritual explorations. At 11 years old, during a potential health crisis, she has an extraordinary experience that sets her on a path of guidance and comfort.

Neal needs all the comfort she can find, as her parents’ love is on again, off again. Toby whipsaws between occasional trust, in that “I know how loved I am,” and the desperation of “Mom doesn’t care how we feel.” Her dad’s anger and depression complicate her attempts to appreciate him as a father. The result—years of conflicted emotions.

The onset of puberty only deepens her conflicts as she struggles with self-image. She wears hand-me-down clothes and ugly “welfare” glasses, feels chubby and plain, eats free school lunch, and could never bring friends home to the hovels her parents call home.

During her teen years, Neal develops a fighting streak that she intuits will take her away from poverty and a dysfunctional lifestyle. “Normal is my rebellion” comes to define her efforts.

At age 13 she gains a breakthrough insight, stating “Now I know I’m good at school.”  She’s able to nail down A’s wherever she goes, once she has a chance to catch up. Keeping a journal and learning to get regular exercise also contribute stabilizing effects.

Neal’s later teen years see her rapidly developing life goals that include not having to worry about “…being homeless, getting washed away in a flood, or wondering where the next meal is coming from.”

At age 17, in eleventh grade, Neal is still stuck on Kaua’i, still subject to her parents’ denial and destitution. Taking her fate into her own hands, she exercises deep-seated determination, and makes a phone call that will change her trajectory.

Despite dreading separation from her younger sisters, Neal is soon pondering college choices that will be “…exciting, glamorous, different…and furthest from Hawai’i.” Her motto? “No way out but forward.

Neal went on to become a prolific author of mystery and romance fiction, now having published over 30 books. She’s also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has had a counseling and coaching practice—no surprise, as her early years gave her lots of material to work with!

Years later, Neal herself experiences an occasion of grace and reconciliation as one of her childhood tormentors appears in her clinic with his family seeking counseling. It’s an unexpected and touching encounter.

For anyone who’s ever been bullied, threatened, beaten or otherwise harassed, Neal’s life is an inspiring example of what it means to grow, to move on, and to heal.

In a brief Afterword, Neal gives a sneak peek toward her next book, Open Road: A Memoir of Travel through the National Parks. As someone who became a chronic overachiever, her “marathon of overwork and stress” eventually depletes her health and sends her on a midlife journey.

No release date given yet for Open Road, but I’ll watch for it. Reading Freckled left me wanting more of TW Neal.

© 2020 Jeremiah Cahill

Jeremiah Cahill resides in Madison, Wisconsin and counts his many blessings every day. Oddly, he’s thankful for the extra time granted to reading and writing during pandemic isolation. His fantasies include dropping everything to chase well-formed waves on some distant seacoast. 

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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