A cinder land describes a landscape bare and burnt. But in Amy Jo Burns’ scorching memoir, it can apply to spirit and soul.
“I knew there would never be another place as lovely as this one, as bleeding as this one … it was beautiful and horrid and small and suffocating and contained everything precious to me.”
In her debut, “Cinderland,” she relates how some preteen girls rose up against Howard Lotte, a respected piano teacher in small town Mercury, Pa., revealing what he had done to them in his basement studio during their weekly lessons.
Mercury wasn’t a dying industrial town, it was a dead one. The steel industry collapsed in the ’80s, and 15 years later the place was filled with ghosts — residents who couldn’t escape and secrets that couldn’t be spoken. Children grew up “learning that the steel industry was our town’s long-dead lover, and we sat in the soot of what had once been a fiery affair.”
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Burns writes from the perspective of all the girls — the ones who spoke up and the ones who didn’t — and the price each paid to a community that didn’t believe in them.
The most poignant moments are the ones from the perspective of the girls afraid to speak out. “We remembered saying no, officer, no. No he didn’t. And we remembered that yes, Howard, yes. You did.” The 10-year-old Burns remained silent about what the music instructor did. To protect family, town and reputation as a “good girl,” she held tenaciously onto her secret, but the price was steeper than she could have anticipated.
As Burns points out, “it’s not easy to say nothing — not easy at all. No one told us that acts of omission will always age into acts of desertion.”
Seven girls spoke up, but many more didn’t. Mercury broke in two: one side with the girls and the other with the music instructor. Those in Lotte’s camp claimed the girls had conspired to ruin his reputation. Carly, Burns’ best friend, was one who pressed charges, and the backlash propelled her family out of Mercury.
The repercussions for the girls who remained silent were not as swift but were just as lasting. “Our lies are turning us old. We are aging; we can feel it by the time we return to school in September after Mr. Lotte spends his first few nights in jail,” Burns writes. “Our faces still resemble baby peaches while our insides curl into tumbleweeds.”
After serving jail time, Lotte returned to Mercury and continued teaching piano, many parents sending their daughters back to support the man they believed falsely accused.
The tale follows the author through high school and her attempts to gain the love of a community she did not trust, while desperately searching for the first road out, whether that was with a boy or a scholarship. First loves, friendships and heartbreak weave together an unforgettable tale about growing up and the life-altering choices we make along the way.
At 18, accepted into Cornell, Burns escapes to start fresh, as did many of the piano students, but some secrets cannot be left behind.
“This kind of life cannot continue forever. Perfection tamps the smolder of our hearts, and we’re so very tired of the constant chill. One by one, our alarm clocks chime, and the awakening begins.… We felt the need to tell someone. But it was so long ago. We called hotlines, we shut off our cable. We took up running. We grew out our nails. We cut our hair and found therapists. Some of us confessed that we couldn’t stop eating Cheetos for breakfast. Others of us confessed our sins to one or two of the seven girls and asked for forgiveness. Somehow, they understood.”
Burns delves unflinching into the incinerating influence a secret has on the shape of a generation that must shift through the ashes.
Cinderland, by Amy Jo Burns (208 pages; Beacon Press; $24.95)