When My Heart Was Wicked is a beautifully written novella exploring influences and choices – and how we can affect or be affected by both. As spoken through the voice of 16 year old Lacy, the world of Northern California’s Chico and Sacramento are just a bit mysterious but at the same time crushingly real. And at 200 pages, the prose is sparing and poignant, with each word carrying the weight of the story without overwhelming it.
Story: Lacy has lived happily with her father and stepmother; the couple have taken care of her since her unstable mother suddenly abandoned her. But when her father dies of cancer, her mother returns and wants Lacy back. Lacy has no choice but to abandon the happy home she had made in Chico and move back to Sacramento. That life with her mother was one she had finally let go with the help of her father: a dark place where the only way to alleviate the pain was to cut or to steal. Soon enough, she finds herself returning to the old ways and fearing she will lose the light part of herself for good.
The book does have a bit of a supernatural element in the form of both mother and daughter having some witch-like talents. But that isn’t the crux of the story so much as the reason why Lacy is so conflicted. If she has some power then there is the chance she has done bad things to others, things her mother taught her. And these things haunt her – make her feel as unworthy as her mother clearly feels she must be.
For really, this is a mother-daughter story. Of a daughter who defended the woman who callously tormented her child as a consequence of selfishness, instability, and inability to care for another individual. Lacy always blindly supported her mother, as a child does, until her father and hippy stepmother gave her stability and strength to grow beyond her mother’s influence. To see that she can be happy and stop the pain.
As Lacy ends up on the wrong side of popularity in her new high school, and has to deal with her mother all over again, she spirals into despair and grapples with the return of the ‘old Lacy’. Will she use her herbs to heal or curse, regressing to stealing and cutting herself, and has her mother greedily stolen her heart in order to control her? Worse, is her mother so anxious to turn Lacy into herself – perhaps to justify her own life’s terrible decisions?
Despite the heavy tones, author Sterling keeps Lacy’s story grounded but not crushingly depressing. Lacy has to navigate several situations in order to understand herself better – and to take the good with the bad. The difference between the Lacy of the past and the Lacy of the present is that her father and stepmother have shown her an alternative life. She is now old enough to finally have perspective: to take her own life into control and not be influenced or hurt by her mother’s selfishness. To not become her mother or let her mother control her. In this way, the supernatural elements of the story are meant allegorically – the idea that her mother has her heart and that’s why Lacy is becoming dark again.
When My Heart Was Wicked is a quick read and I enjoyed it very much. It is the type of YA book that you enjoy reading but also makes you recognize how important good writing is to a story. Highly recommended. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.