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There is a common notion about human nature that we start with innocence and progress toward non-innocence or even corruption. Thus, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden, Lucifer is cast into hellfire; and in our own American culture, foreign wars, the death of a president, and now the horror of September 11, 2001 are stages in a journey away from innocence.

Against this natural tendency, there are some who remain innocent, even after the worst; but there are others who seem to be born without a trace of it, as if they've learned from past lives the wisdom and inevitability of corruption. The narrator of Flying Sparks(Growing Up On The Edge of Las Vegas) is a hybrid of the two: an informed innocent.

This memoir of a young girl growing up in Las Vegas in the 1960s doesn't spend much time in the familiar Las Vegas of casinos and floorshows. Instead, it's set in the small city, pre-boom Las Vegas that many called "home" ­ neighborhoods, small businesses, schools, outlying ranches and desert communities. While the Rat Pack were making their own history in the seats of pleasure, Odette Larson was growing up across town in a small city no different from other small cities of the time except for the vast and mysterious desert that spreads out around the city. It is here that the girl finds hope and peace, a place where she can ride horses with her friends, limited only by the horizon and the heat.

Her own home isn't a happy place; her parents are loving but also brutal, administering harsh punishment for small offenses, eventually sending the narrator away to a convent, and then a mental institution. Ironically, but not surprising, some of the worst things happen to her when she's sent to places that are supposed to help or reform her; but the outside world also provides its own share of pain.

Physical and psychological violence, drug use, and sexual abuse are common in Odette's world. Early in the book, the pre-teen narrator and another girl are sexually abused by a close family friend while visiting him at his ranch; later she is raped by a black cowboy she and her brothers have met and become friends with while exploring the desert around Las Vegas. Not long after that, she and another girl whom she has just met while walking down the street, are abducted by a gang of boys, taken to the desert and raped.

Running away from home leads to a convent; running away from the convent leads to a mental institution. In the mental institution she becomes the girlfriend of a violent criminal and breaks out with him. After a failed robbery attempt, her boyfriend winds up in police custody and she winds up homeless on the streets of Oakland, California. While in Oakland, she is first held hostage by a drug addict, rescued, and then drifts between different men until she winds up going home.

All of this happens before she is 12 years old. That remarkable fact is overshadowed by the way she bounces back from these atrocities, maintains a hopeful innocence, and doesn't allow bitterness, blame or anger to infect the narrative.

Odette Larson writes with an easy, direct style that concentrates on telling a story she knows, and trying not to make more of it than it is. It would have been tempting to try to bootstrap this story into a metaphor for the changes and losses America experienced in the 60s.

Thankfully, that doesn't happen ­ probably because this character, in many ways like the dismemebered optimist in Nathaneal West's A Cool Million, is universal. She could be found along the by-ways of medieval Europe as well as the atomic desert of Nevada.

There is much pain and horror in this story, but there is also much that's beautiful, inspiring, and heartfelt. Descriptions of the desert are especially poignant and come from an obviously inspired writer:

"The desert's surface, sculpted by wind, is the arid holding ground of change, a composite of mountains beat to rock, ground to sediment, washed from hills by rain turned into flash floods that carve paths forming gulches and gullies whose walls expose layers of earth. Within each layer are stories of change, within each story. . .keys. . .answers to questions. . .how it was. . .what made it like it is. . .what elements it shares with other terrain. . .what will become of it?

"My life evolved like the desert. Sculpted on the surface by winds of change. Ripped open in places by floods of events leaving layers of stories trapped in the rubble of time.


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