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'Etched in Sand': a review

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Redear beware: this recommendation is not for the faint of heart.

Imagine your more or less normal, run-of-the-mill adolescence. Your parents were likely present - taking you to activities, cooking family meals and making sure the holidays were spent as a unit. Now imagine raising yourself and your siblings (had you any) in a litany of shelters not fit for human survival, like cramped car trunks, gas station parking lots and rotten, stinking apartments teeming with vermin. Many of us take our so-called "normal" upbringings for granted. The author of Etched in Sand, Regina Calcaterra, did all of the aforementioned, plus stole, lied and begged to survive a sexually and physically abused, half-starved life. This harrowing story follows the childhood of Regina and her four half-siblings as they are tossed from home to home at the hands of their biological mother Cookie, a physically absent alcoholic, as she gains and loses employment, chases men and spends the better part of her children's lives on drinking binges, and her welfare on cigarettes and pills. All of this takes place on southern Long Island, in and around much affluence.

At times Regina, Camille, Cherie, Norman and Rosie are separated and thrown into foster care after intense beatings by Cookie, but always do everything possible to try to reunite. Once accomplished, the children learn to lean on one another, stretch what little money they have, and most importantly, stay together. The older girls care for the younger children, especially in the rare instances when Cookie reappears, and shield them from the cold of winter, the pain of starvation and their mother's erratic and often violent behavior.

At the age of 14, Regina manages to emancipate herself from Cookie, but in doing so, must leave Normam and Rosie behind in Cookie's care. Regina eventually thrives in school and manages to get accepted into college, and later becomes chief deputy executive for Suffolk County. Against all odds, she succeeds. This gritty, gruesome tale proves that there is always a silver lining to every story. Love will always prevail.

Very rarely during the span of this story, from the 1980s to the near present, does the child welfare system do right by these children. As an adult, Regina works in several capacities to improve the government's role in children's lives, which was the underlying injustice of this memoir. If you liked Breaking Night by Liz Murray, or The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Etched in Sand will deeply affect you.


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