Written as letters from a sixteen-year-old girl to an inmate, Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher tells the story of Zoe. This British girl, who dreams someday of becoming an author of children’s books, has killed someone she was supposed to love. With the guilt weighing heavily on her, Zoe locates a man on death row in Texas, guilty of his own crime of passion, and adopts him as her pen pal—a kindred spirit who might understand “the pain and the fear and the sadness and the guilt and the hundred other feelings that don’t even have a name in all of the English language” (7). Because she can tell no one else the truth about Max Morgan and The Boy with Brown Eyes, Zoe selects Stuart Harris from the criminals pictured on a Death Row website. Harris, who looks somewhat like Harry Potter in his Web mug shot, becomes Zoe’s sounding board and confidante.
Burdened by her guilt and unable to sleep, Zoe escapes to the garden shed behind her house to write her letters under the cloak of darkness with only a spider as her companion. Zoe imagines the spider “lurking in the shadows, watching [her] scribble and copying [her] words, spelling out [her] secrets on the ceiling in silver silk” (184). The letters begin formally, Dear Mr. Harris, but as Zoe spills more of her personal pain, the letters address Stuart, Stu, My dear Stu, and finally My dearest Stu. From Fiction Road in the United Kingdom to this criminal in Polunsky Unit in the USA, Zoe relates her experiences with first love and how The Boy with Brown Eyes makes her body feel different under his gaze—not just arms and legs and bones but skin and lips and curves. Love made life an intense sensual experience; colors were brighter, smells stronger, sounds louder. But there’s also Max Morgan, not as sensuous but accessible. With these two relationships, Zoe weaves a web of deceit that tangles her emotions into knots of confusion.
Noticing the glow on Zoe’s face and recognizing it as love, Zoe’s mum—being practical—warns Zoe not to get distracted by boys: “Boys come and go, you know. Not like exam grades. They’ll stay with you forever” (213). But these two boys permanently imprint themselves on Zoe’s mind until their memory breaks her into “a million little pieces that could never be fixed” (246). She wishes to erase that whole part of her life, hoping to start again, drawing herself free and happy.
That this correspondence in Ketchup Clouds is coming from an adolescent girl becomes obvious at times in Zoe’s naïve belief that her worries and woes will distract a man on death row from his imminent execution. Still, the writing helps Zoe heal, helps lift the sad weight of her heart, ease the gnawing guilt, and diminish the desperate desire to hide. Ultimately, the book unveils the power that self-loathing and guilt have to destroy one’s spirit and to leech the color from life. Ironically, it is from her pragmatic mum—who has her own secrets to hide and whose own love is buried under money worries, job worries, and Grandpa worries—that Zoe gets the best advice: “Guilt like that—it destroys a person. You have to find a way to let it go. . . . You have to forgive yourself” (250).
- Posted by Donna