Author’s Tale Examines Racism and Adoption
By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent
Corie Skolnick starts her novel “Orfan” by foisting heart-breaking bad luck onto an innocent. In the opening chapters, the character J.D., a mixed raced kid born to a Catholic teenager, is given up for adoption, only to have the loving couple who open their hearts to him die before he even starts kindergarten. When asked to draw his family on his first day of school, JD draws a single black stick figure below the words “Jimmy Deane is a orfan” – written in perfect script. Living with his bigoted, down- right mean excuse for a grandmother, life doesn’t get any better for the little boy until magic happens -and Skolnick lets her infatuation with the “dead movie star,” James Dean, run free.
In this her first novel, Skolnick a marriage and family therapist and former college psychology professor, returns to her first passion, storytelling. She exposes the wrenching impact racism and the stigma that adoption can have on one little boy, creating a memorable, cultural superhero who comes through it all still able to love and be loved.
Laguna Beach Books, located at The Old Pottery Place at 1200 S. Coast Highway will be hosting a meet-the-author gathering for Skolnick on Sunday, May 20, at 4 p.m. Skolnick, 61, lives in Oak Park in Ventura County and was a psychology professor at both California State University, Northridge and Moorpark College before retiring in 2006 to write full time.
Set in the late 1960s in Chicago’s south side, which Martin Luther King described as one of the most racist places he had ever experienced, Skolnick writes with authority about the place and time. It is where she grew up. “I accepted it,” she said. “I was white and one of the good guys and I don’t say that with any pride.” But when she was 15 and saw how King and his supporters were brutalized as they marched through her neighborhood in an effort to change discriminatory housing and insurance policies, her perception of what was acceptable and right changed forever.
As an adult, Skolnick learned that her father had been adopted and realized that “My dad’s story had been laundered because of shame.” In writing “Orfan,” Skolnick did not want to write a polemic but to open people’s hearts to the pain caused by racism and biases surrounding adoption. According to Skolnick, there are more than 35,000 kids currently living in foster care in Los Angeles County alone, (almost a half million in the U.S.) and the bulk of those children are of mixed race and labeled “hard to place” in the language of the adoption care industry
For those kids, and all young adults who are bombarded by pop culture but receive few character development tools, she wanted to create a biracial champion “who had bad things happen to him but he came through it able to love, not consumed with anger and rage.”
Eventually, readers learn why James Dean, the quintessential rebel without cause, becomes JD’s spirit companion and how a deep river of loyalty runs through JD’s friend and neighbor, a grungy, lottery playing, Harley mechanic.
While Skolnick starts her novel with intense sadness, she ends it with a delicious, wonderful turn of events, beginning with a dreadlocked professor who speaks to JD’s innermost being when he describes loss “as the inevitable price we must pay for the relationship and the love and joy we experience as part of it.” And as James Dean, decked out in his famous red jacket with cigarette in hand evaporates, readers will be left cheering through their tears as JD’s heart opens to the reservoir of love real people have to shower upon him.
Robin Pierson is a Laguna Beach-based writer.