On Linda Boström Knausgård’s novella Welcome to America and the end of childhood.
Every night when I was a child, my mother asked me to set the table before dinner. I came to believe that if there was anything odd among the four place settings—a chipped plate, say, or a knife from a different pattern—the one I gave it to would die. My habit in the beginning was to give it to my brother; later, my mother, and later still my father. I can’t explain these decisions. Night after night, no one would die, but my belief in this power, my fear of this power, persisted. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I’d mostly outgrown the belief. I had talked myself out of other secret, compulsive behaviors, like counting things pointlessly, never stepping on a certain corner tile in the foyer. Still, when setting the table, I began to take the doomed object, the portent, for myself—superstitiously, just in case.
Ellen, the eleven-year-old narrator of Linda Boström Knausgård’s recently released novella Welcome to America, believes she has similar powers, but life has provided her with more evidence that they’re real: “My dad’s dead. Did I mention that? It’s my fault. I prayed out loud to God for him to die and he did.” In the aftermath, Ellen has stopped talking or even writing—communication is dangerous, any crossing of the barrier between inner life and outer world. “You should never ask for what you want,” Ellen says, or maybe thinks—the transmission of this confession somehow bypasses her silence.
It disturbs the order of things. The way you really want them. You want to be disappointed. You want to be hurt and have to struggle to get over it. You want the wrong presents on your birthday.
Ellen does not feel remorse about her father, whose moods were erratic and threatened violence; he made her mother and everyone unhappy: “I never felt guilty about wishing he was dead.” She reasons it was murder in self-defense and, further, she is not fully responsible, since she achieved the killing through prayer. God is her coconspirator: “It was me and God who’d killed my dad. We’d done it together, once and for all.” But she is afraid of her own power, “the power there was in me speaking.” She quickly realizes silence is another kind of power—the power of withholding what other people want (“It was so easy. Just stopping. From one moment to the next my life was changed”). It’s a power she must have the strength of will to maintain: “Sometimes I’m scared I’ll talk in my sleep. That someone will hear me and hold it against me at some future time.” Ellen has spent so much of her childhood in fear. In her silence, finally, she becomes frightening; a threat and not the threatened.