The first, short chapter of Kathleen M. Rodgers’ novel The Flying Cutterbucks creates an air of foreboding that the reader never quite shakes. Jewel Cutterbuck is watching the results of the 2020 presidential election, with a purring cat on her lap. Hand shaking, she jumps at odd sounds, and reflects on the “dark and disturbing secret her eldest daughter had shared with her the previous day.”
In two paragraphs, Rodgers instills the story with a past while opening the door to an uncertain future, and she builds suspense while zigzagging from the long passed to recent days. The pivot point is Trudy Cutterbuck, the daughter with the secret.
Quick cut to an earlier election, 2016: Trudy has come back to her hometown, Pardon, New Mexico, to retire and take care of Jewel. Briskly, we meet a woman who has hidden behind her smile for decades—first as a high school baton twirler who was assured that her looks made up for her lack of talent, then as a flight attendant smiling for strangers. The person she’d like to have smiled for is her father, missing in action over North Vietnam since her childhood. An Air Force pilot, he had called his family “The Flying Cutterbucks” as they flew through the town in their station wagon.
Coming home to Pardon has a surreal quality. Trudy has no sugarcoated memories to ease the return. Jewel and her sister, Star, are horrified by the “Orange Cheese Puff’s” vulgarity, which triggers memories of Star’s abusive son. (It is a nice touch that the exotically named sisters Jewel and Star are paired with the more prosaic Gertrude/Trudy and Georgia). Trudy’s life has tested her ability to smile. She has suffered loss, pain, abuse and disappointment. She and her mother talk, but their communication is hit and miss. Jewel’s failing mental acuity and Trudy’s desire to keep the past in the past both work against true honesty. Trudy’s Aunt Star lives with her own secret.
Further, despite its name, Pardon isn’t a forgiving place. The mainstay of the town—an Air Force base—has closed, and with it, many of the town’s businesses. For Trudy, Pardon is replete with memories: nice ones, like those family car trips and her long-ago prom date Clay, as well as terrible ones, like the loss of Trudy’s child. Looming over the town is the impending presidential election, and the women’s fear that someone as crass as the Republican candidate could actually win. Even the Cutterbuck home exudes sorrow as a shrine to the missing Shep Cutterbuck, awaiting the hero’s return that will never happen.
The book takes a scattershot approach to the tale of Trudy and her loved ones. At times, flashbacks appear like the memories of a dementia patient shouldering their way into the present, unexpected and not always unwelcome. Her father’s voice echoes in Trudy’s head, a ghostly radio from the beyond. Present day arrives with a thump, never smoothly.
Rodgers manages the difficult task of weaving the various pieces together, not perfectly, not neatly, but with real heart. The method suits the story and its characters extremely well: like a cloth woven from uneven yarn, the bumps and troughs add to the texture of the piece. She doesn’t tie up the storyline in a bow at the end, but one thing is certain: The reader will not soon forget Trudy and her journey.