Finding middle ground

Kansas girl seeks moral center in KU alumna's novel

There's a famous 1939 map that shows the United States from a New Yorker's perspective. New York state looms disproportionately large, and everything else kind of runs together.

Evelyn Bucknow, the protagonist in Kansas University alumna Laura Moriarty's debut novel, takes the same egocentric view of her life in fictional Kerrville, Kan.


Special to the Journal-World

Kansas University alumna Laura Moriarty poses next to Kansas on a map of the United States. Moriarty's debut novel, "The Center of Everything," is set in Kansas. Moriarty will return to Lawrence for book reading and signing events Thursday and Saturday.

"She truly believes she's the center of everything," Moriarty says during a phone interview from her home in Portland, Maine, where she's working on her next book.

Although Evelyn's teacher tells her a map's center depends on the mapmaker's perspective, she believes otherwise: "I like living in Kansas ... because it's right in the center. If you look at a map of the world, the United States is usually right in the middle, and Kansas is in the middle of that. So right here where we are, maybe this very stretch of highway we are driving on, is the exact center of the whole world, what everything else spirals out from."

"As she gets older," Moriarty says of Evelyn, "she starts to realize that's not the way it is, that there IS no center, and that depending on where you are, that's what seems most important."

Moriarty chronicles Evelyn's coming-of-age in "The Center of Everything," published by Hyperion in July. The book follows Evelyn as she grapples with her welfare mother, her average looks, the pains of not being popular, her first love and forming personal convictions in an isolated Kansas town during the Reagan era. She develops a skeptical, judgmental shell to shield her from the shame of being poor, of not knowing her father, of having a mother who sleeps with a married man and, as a result, a baby brother who's mentally and physically disabled.

On her journey from 10 years old to high school graduation, Evelyn dabbles in religion (encouraged by her Christian fundamentalist grandmother) and learns about evolution (through a much-publicized citywide debate that will ring all too familiar for Kansans). Science and faith emerge as competing belief systems, and Evelyn siphons what she needs from both to tune her own moral compass.

Much to Moriarty's surprise, the book has won critical acclaim in industry publications and major newspapers nationwide. The consensus: Moriarty succeeds because she crafts a tender coming-of-age story without the typical coming-of-age conventions.

Case in point: Moriarty avoids the classic -- some would say overdone -- exploration of puberty. She jokes about a scholar who wrote an entire dissertation on the importance of girls' first periods in coming-of-age novels.

"I purposefully did not put that in this book because it's not like the angels come down and it's the most important thing in your life," she says. "I guess for her (Evelyn) that wasn't as important as everything else she went through. ... I wanted it to really be about her intellectual and moral growth."

A pure voice

Just as Evelyn grows older and wiser during the course of the novel, Moriarty has come a long way since she first conceived of the book's central characters while completing her undergraduate student practicum in social welfare at KU. An epiphany during an "ill-fated" year abroad in Malta led her back to the university for graduate school in creative writing. She began fleshing out the story of Evelyn and her mother, Tina, under the tutelage of late KU English professor Carolyn Doty, who, even when Moriarty struggled with prose, always praised her heroine's voice.

"Even when nothing else was working, the voice was there," Moriarty recalls. "I kind of just kept writing in that voice until I had a story."

But it wasn't until she left KU in 2000 that Moriarty finally found the time and energy to finish the novel. That's when she won the George Bennett Fellowship for Creative Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H.

"It's so frustrating if you want to write and don't have the time," she says. "I got that call (about the fellowship), and it was just like winning the lottery."

Once she got out of Kansas, she finished the book in a year.

Now she finds herself wanting to move back. Though she's not a native of the state -- she was born in Hawaii and crisscrossed the country with her military father -- it's the one place she stayed longest and still considers home.

"I love it," she says. "I really think the land and the geography are so beautiful there."

For Evelyn, however, the state she views as the center of everything sometimes makes her a bit claustrophobic. Everyone at her small apartment complex, Treeline Colonies, knows about her mother's affair; her peers live for getting high, while she'd rather study for math tests; and her best friend Deena, barely a teenager, gets pregnant by the boy Evelyn always dreamed of marrying.

Education saves her from her stifling circumstances, and her wry sense of humor keeps her sane in the mean time.

Take her deadpan description of Deena and her boyfriend, Travis: "It's spring now, and Travis and Deena are still in love. They have to be holding hands at all times, as if one of them is really a helium balloon and will float away if the other lets go."

Tempting a skeptic

Evelyn's characteristic sarcasm and skepticism show up again and again in the book.

Moriarty introduces her younger brother, Samuel, to test Evelyn's disbelief. The boy is born with a distant look in his eye, and it appears he'll never walk, talk or do anything for himself. But Tina refuses to give up hope in her son's potential, and one day, she gets him to eat on his own.

"For any skeptic, you have to be able to admit that there are things we don't understand," Moriarty says. "Samuel's glassy blue eyes were kind of metaphors for the unknown. She DOESN'T know what's going on in his head. ... Her mother doesn't know, but Evelyn doesn't know either. Then it turns out there was kind of something there."

It's experience like the one with her brother that transform Evelyn from a little girl who believes "Really, it's not important if you do bad things or good things. Some people are just blessed, and some aren't" to a young woman who puts more stock in the randomness of luck.

"That's one of the lines actually I took out of the book because I thought it was too forced," Moriarty says. "Basically I was thinking about how good luck can change to bad luck and back again. I think she becomes more aware of the randomness of fate and therefore less judgmental of other people and what they've gone through."

Moriarty says that characteristic in Evelyn may stem from her own background in social services. She learned in her time at KU to help people and respect them at the same time.

"I think that's really true when you're writing fiction as well," she says. "You have to try and look at the whole person; it's a rounded character. ... I think people who would be drawn to social services might also be drawn to writing.

"If you can put yourself in someone else's shoes without condescending to them, it seems like a skill that would serve you in both fields."


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