Amity Gaige’s Schroder is very loosely inspired by the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German man who spent years pretending he was a “real” Rockefeller – Clark Rockefeller, in fact. Eventually “Rockefeller’s” marriage disintegrated, his mental instability became insupportable, and he kidnapped his daughter on one of their supervised, court ordered parental visits. I read Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, which is a nonfiction account of Gerhartsreiter /Rockefeller’s story, but Gaige only heard the basics reported one night on the news, and did no further research, but still found herself intrigued by the creation of another life and persona coupled with the kidnapping of a child. Schroder examines Eric Kennedy’s story through a document he writes to his wife while incarcerated for the parental kidnapping of their daughter, Meadow, and it is a fascinating examination of class, identity, belonging and love.
One of the extremely powerful results of fiction is its ability to firmly stick you in the shoes of a person whose background and perspective can be completely different than your own. Sometimes as a reader these unfamiliar notions are rejected right away, but in the hands of a skilled writer the subtle workings of the text (and maybe even the charm of a character) holds us captive in a way that forces us to consider whether notions other than our own are correct, and help us to gauge how we behave and judge the rightness of others’ actions. Schroder is a complex tale and Gaige weaves it beautifully. Even knowing what I did about him as the novel begins, it was difficult not to get wrapped up in and sympathize with his point of view.
Kennedy mentions that it’s not a crime to lie or create stories, and that fraud is only perpetrated when you benefit from the lies you’ve told. It’s an interesting admission because he clearly benefits in the imaginary life he builds for himself in the aftermath of his name change. Alluding to a vague relationship to “that” Kennedy family, he claims to have grown up in the fictional and idyllic town of Twelve Hills and his admission gets him a wife, a career and a daughter whom he adores, all with minimal effort. Kennedy, in a reflective state of mind, and having taken a vow of silence while imprisoned, has nothing to do but explore the history he attempted to leave unremarked, and the myriad ways he has benefited from being Eric Kennedy. We learn he was separated from his mother in Germany at a young age (pre Berlin Wall demolition), that he and his father have a distant relationship, and that neither of them made a good job of assimilating into their adoptive community of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The camp application where Kennedy first declares himself Eric Kennedy is the opportunity for a fresh start as an all-American boy, and once the dream is within his grasp, he can’t let go.
In the aftermath of his crimes, Kennedy calls himself a monster, and though he is capable of monstrous actions and grievous errors in judgment, I still had mixed feelings about him, and even huge compassion for him. Had he crossed no other lines, I’m not sure that I would have thought it was such a big deal that he changed his last name to Kennedy, or made up stories about his upbringing. Anyone who has survived childhood and teenage years knows how fierce the desire is to belong, but Kennedy is also an unreliable narrator. He happily spins readers down one path before tracking back to provide a much fuller and illuminating portrait of events previously viewed as benign. I never doubted his love for his daughter Meadow, but the main of their interaction occurs at Kennedy’s lowest point, and as good a father as he prides himself on having been to her, his actions on those seven fateful days gave me pause at the best of times, and were horrifying at the worst.
Gaige absolutely does justice to gray areas surrounding gender and custody issues in parenting, the effects of history and identity on interpersonal relationships, and the fragile bond between parents and children as they pursue the ideals of happy families and golden childhoods. It’s great to have these pursuits and ideals in mind, but Schroder shows that there is an inherent risk in it all going terribly wrong. Highly recommended.