Kelly Hitchcock’s The Redheaded Stepchild is an impressive collection of short stories that moves back and forth in time to chronicle the strained relationship between Cady and her stepmother Katrina. It’s difficult to categorize Stepchild as either a novel or a short story collection — while each story stands alone, all the stories combine to form a cohesive narrative thread. I love the dual meaning in the book’s title — Cady is certainly a redhead and a stepchild, but the title also clearly refers to the colloquial use of the phrase “redheaded stepchild,” meaning someone treated worse than both biological children and other stepchildren.
This is certainly the case for Cady. We are treated in the first story to Cady at twenty, home from college and dropping by Katrina’s hair salon. When Cady admits her father hasn’t confided in her about his problems, Katrina reacts with disdain, declaring that Cady should “learn to communicate better with him.” Considering that Katrina herself hadn’t spoken to Cady’s father in a while, Cady understandably gets her hackles up: “I was still his oldest child. [...] To [Katrina] my father was nothing more than a worn-out lover.” Unfortunately, Cady is too meek to stand up to Katrina, and instead ends up flustered and intimidated.
This dynamic pretty much characterizes their decade-long relationship, as Hitchcock chronicles it. Hitchcock works well with dialogue, juxtaposing Cady’s awkward, hesitant phrases with Katrina’s biting jibes. We see Cady’s emotional outbursts beside Katrina’s coldness. This is especially evident in “Pageant,” where Cady has her heart set on singing an original composition for her final high school pageant, and Katrina tears her down, saying Cady should instead stick to her usual cover of “Concrete Angel.” I don’t mean to paint Cady as a total victim, because she’s not. The best part of Hitchcock’s stories is that the emotional core is actually rather subdued, so that we sympathize with Cady rather than pity her.
The book as a whole speaks about Cady’s struggle for confidence and independence, for freedom not just from her cold-hearted stepmother, but also from her small-town life. With this in mind, I think Hitchcock’s decision not to tell Cady’s story chronologically works really well. I admit being a bit confused at the beginning — Hitchcock only notes Cady’s age after each story, and I didn’t like not being told how old Cady was up front. That being said, once I got into the rhythm of the book, it became easier to tell, if not how old Cady was exactly, at least at what point in her life we’re seeing her. She does develop as a character, and it’s great to see the subtle shifts in her concerns and her confidence level as she does. The first and the last stories work particularly well in framing Cady’s tale — set just a year apart, we see a marked difference in tone, and we can appreciate this because of all the stories in between.
While much of the focus is on Cady and her stepmother, I also liked reading about Cady’s siblings — by this, I mean her biological ones, since she feels more of an older sister protectiveness towards them. In one of my favourite scenes, Cady comes across an old school paper by her younger sister Teresa from 1st/2nd grade. Filled with spelling errors and an endearing backwards “e”, Teresa writes about how “Cafrin” is her hero. That story ends with Cady telling her father she goes by Catherine from now on, and that just about broke my heart. I love how strong the bond between the sisters is, and I love how Hitchcock used small details (the backwards e, a forgotten apostrophe) to evoke so much.
The Redheaded Stepchild is a touching, sweet book. It’s the small details that get you, and while Hitchcock sometimes has a tendency to go overboard with the emotional scenes, the stories overall do tug on the heartstrings. A very good book.
Thank you to the author for a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.