Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Shelter develops Phillips's recurring theme of disintegrating families. Although clearly the most dysfunctional, the Carmody family differs only in degree from the Briarleys, the Campbells, and the Swensons. None is these families is stable, as the recollections of Alma and Lenny reveal. Long before the novel opens, reenacting the Briarleys' fights has become a game for Cap and Lenny. Catherine Winthrop has already left Henry Briarley, returned to her family home in Connecticut, and taken back her maiden name. Audrey Swenson and Nickel Campbell have come to believe their marriages are mistakes, and they have engaged in a two-year affair. Moreover, throughout the affair, Audrey has detailed all her feelings in conversations with her younger daughter, Alma. Meanwhile, Lenny has begun to remember incidents of sexual "touching," presumably by her drunken father. Trapped by Mina's psychological dependence, and tortured by guilt about what he is doing to his children. Nickel has killed himself. The epilogue to this novel reveals that finally the Swensons too have separated; Audrey and her daughters live in New York state, where Audrey works in the admissions department of the private school Lenny and Cap attend.
In keeping with the dysfunctional family theme is the family secrets motif. Each of the major characters is privy to a secret which must remain hidden, often even within the family. Cap and Lenny cloak themselves in Catherine's discarded rabbit coats and make the telling of secrets a game, but Lenny quickly learns that truth can still be concealed if told in a way that defies belief. On the other hand, when secrets such as their smoking and drinking are revealed, Catherine will no longer allow Lenny to spend the night with Cap. Lenny also is careful to make certain that Audrey does not know about the incidents with Wes. Alma feels compelled to conceal Audrey's affair with Nickel and to protect Delia from knowledge of the affair and of Nickel's apparent suicide. During each day's camp activities. Alma completes Delia's tasks as well as her own, so that the counselors will not realize how troubled Delia actually is. More dangerous, though, is Buddy's need to hide from Carmody. This man, whom he calls Dad, threatens to add beating and kidnapping to his usual sexual abuse. Finally, there is Parson, the escaped convict, who hides by living in an abandoned shack and joining an isolated work crew. At the climax of the novel, all of these characters are linked by the most sinister of secrets, one they vow never to disclose.
Involved in this secret is the theme of initiation, another important concern in Shelter. Initially the subject is maturation, as Lenny's naked, midnight swim becomes an introduction to sexuality and a step toward definition of her sexual identity. Later, however, Lenny and her friends become part of a more sinister initiation, as these five young people experience their first direct encounter with the corruption of the adult world and learn not only to recognize evil, but to deal with its consequences. Isolated physically and psychologically from home and parents, they can rely only on the assistance of Parson, the mad prison escapee who already sees the Devil every night. Parson represents the contradictory nature of human personality. Although he has killed two people, he becomes a kind of savior, first when he intervenes to save the youngsters from Carmody, and again when he assumes the guilt of their crime.
The motif of appearance and reality also figures prominently in this novel. Initially these young people seem innocent, but through their thoughts and recollections, Phillips gradually reveals that each of them has experienced some prior brush with a powerful, corrupting force. As her mother's confidante, Alma considers herself almost a participant in Audrey's affair with Nickel Campbell; in fact, Alma recognizes a greater spiritual affinity with Nickel than with either of her own parents. Her guilt causes her to be extremely protective of her surrogate step-siblings, Delia and John-John. In Delia's case, her psychological balance has been upset by a growing recognition of the circumstances surrounding her father's death. Her parents' bitter and prolonged fights have caused a similar dislocation for Cap, making her cynical and manipulative, especially sexually. In contrast, Lenny has become passive. She knows about her mother's affair, and she vaguely recalls childhood experiences of a clearly sexual nature. Her response has been to share her father's beer and to participate in Cap's implicitly sexual games. Buddy, the youngest of the group, has been the most victimized, as Carmody has repeatedly abused him sexually.
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