By focusing on a pair of orphaned siblings, Phillips raises questions of what it means to grow up while experiencing a profound absence. Lark and Termite both feel a yearning for their parents, but through their relationship with each other as well as their relationships with Nonie and Charlie, they create a new kind of family. Through Termite’s love of music and Lark’s drawing, Phillips shows how the presence of dead family members can still be felt. Leavitt and Lola may be gone, but they exert a considerable influence on those who are left.
The relationship between Charlie and Lark is further evidence of Phillips’s theme of unconventional families. Lark has grown up with Charlie acting as a father figure, yet their blood relationship was kept secret from her. Phillips shows that a conventional father–daughter situation is not a prerequisite for a meaningful paternal relationship.
These relationships grow up in spite of traditional barriers such as class and social conventions. Gladys refuses to believe that Lark is Charlie’s daughter, and she never warms to the woman Charlie loves, Nonie. Gladys believes a person should only marry someone from their own station who shares the same social class and religious beliefs, but the love between Nonie and Charlie thwarts these strict rules. Similar to the way Gladys stands between Nonie and Charlie, the people working for Winfield’s Social Services attempt to dismantle the familial relationship between Lark and Termite by demanding that Termite be sent to a school for the mentally handicapped.
Phillips employs different literary motifs to illustrate her ideas about family, love, and time. In the sections from Termite’s point of view, an orange alley cat frequently appears. Termite seems to be mesmerized by the cat; the animal is a specter to which no one but Lark gives much notice. In the final section of the book, which introduces...
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