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Immunity, the latest offering by award-winning author Donna LeClair, recounts one woman’s struggles to maintain her sanity during a long nightmarish sojourn among the wealthy and powerful.
Emma, a sixty-something Midwesterner, signs on as a personal assistant to the family of David and Pauline Gram and their four children, in a far off land that Emma comes to think of as “Hollow Wood.” She is told that anything the family does is okay and strictly confidential. On Day One Emma watches as Pauline consumes an illegal substance and tosses her a few hundred-dollar bills to purchase enough pasteurized goat’s milk for Pauline’s bathing pool. When she meets Luke, the only male heir to the Gram fortune (his twin having been forcibly aborted to guarantee he’d have no competition), she sees that he is cute, chipper and totally unaware of anyone’s needs but his own. Her first car ride with David is terrifying as he drives in the emergency lane at top speed and when stopped by the highway patrol, makes it clear that he can’t be given a ticket. In the Grams’ world, it’s not so much who you know but who you own.
Trying to control her reactions to this selfish splendor, Emma discovers aspects of life with the Grams that are even worse than she could have possibly imagined. Pauline’s vast wardrobe never includes any outfit worn more than twice. David makes connubial visits to his wife, whom he keeps looking like a teenager by paying for the magic of the surgeon’s knife, on a strict schedule. Both parents snort, smoke and sip the best addictive substances, and when Emma hears the precise nature of their drug-related activities, she fears for her own safety. A romance keeps her temporarily soothed, but Emma will soon have to choose between her caring for the family and her culpability as a witness to their many nefarious dealings.
LeClair is a prodigious wordsmith who uses the writing craft to good effect. Whether it is a drug-induced temper flare-up, the destruction of a motel room, or a brief erotic interlude, the author weaves a rich tapestry. She has made fiction, it seems, of a painfully recalled set of reminiscences, changing the names to protect the innocent and avoid the wrath of the guilty. She examines the word “immunity” in its many guises: protection from penalty, entitlement of the very wealthy and well-connected, exemption from “an old love,” denial of responsibility, and “declaration protecting honorably truth.”
Through Emma’s eyes, we see all of these definitions playing out. By stepping into daily life as the Gram family understands it, Emma must make sacrifices that she may later regret. Thankfully, LeClair has ensured an ending that will give Emma the new chance she deserves and take away some of the weapons of power wielded by the Grams and their ilk.
Immunity won First Place in the 2017 CIBAs, in the JOURNEY AWARDS for narrative nonfiction.