Surrendered Child

Karen Salyer McElmurray

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About the book

Surrendered Child is Karen Salyer McElmurray’s raw, poignant account of her journey from her teen years, when she put her newborn child up for adoption, to adulthood and a desperate search for the son she never knew. In a patchwork narrative interwoven with dark memories from her childhood, McElmurray deftly treads where few dare—into a gritty, honest exploration of the loss a birth mother experiences. With unflinching honesty, McElmurray recounts both the painful surrendering and the surprise rediscovery of her son, and juxtaposes that story with a portrayal of her own mother, who could not provide the love she needed. The dramatic result is a tale of birthright lost and found—and an exploration of the meaning of motherhood itself.

About the author

Karen Salyer McElmurray is the author of two novels, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (Georgia) and Motel of the Stars, and the memoir Surrendered Child (Georgia). She is associate professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University, where she is nonfiction editor for Arts and Letters. She also teaches in the low-residency program at Murray State University.

For discussion

  1. The memoir begins with a long and difficult birth scene. The next chapter of the book, however, takes us back to the childhood of the teenager who just gave birth. Discuss this choice of narrative structure.
  3. During the long birth scene, the narrator more than once mentions her own mother—both wanting her and not wanting her. How does this complex reaction to her mother, and to mothering in general, speak to one of the major themes of this memoir?
  5. During the birth scene, and throughout the memoir, the author chooses to tell some of her story in retrospective, italicized sections. Discuss this technique.
  7. Surrendered Child is about adoption, but it is also about emotional trauma and childhood. Discuss how these themes relate to one another in the book.
  9. In some portions of the book, for example on pages 183-185, McElmurray chooses to relate events in the points of view of others—her mother, her father. Discuss the effectiveness of this approach.
  11. Discuss McElmurray’s mother. She is obviously subject to emotional illness, but in what ways is she also portrayed sympathetically?
  13. Another “mother” figure in this book is The Sacred Mother, who appears at various moments in the narrative, for example on pages 38-39, in an almost dreamed sequence at night, when the author is a child. Discuss the importance of this figure to the narrative in general.
  15. Discuss the long scene, pages 140-143, in which McElmurray’s father recalls hunting and the slaughter of a hunting dog. How does this scene contribute to the characterization of her father, and to her ultimate decision not to relinquish her son to her father?
  17. The final chapter of the book chooses to tell its events differently, in a “fragmented” narrative style. Comment on the successes and shortcomings of this departure in style.
  19. The book’s afterward provides a kind of “surprise ending.” Comment on the impact of this event (the reunion with Andrew) on the memoir in general.
  21. Who are the various “surrendered children” in this book?
  23. A constant theme of the memoir is relinquishment and loss. Does the memoir manage to “transcend” loss, and in what ways?
  25. In what ways does the book impact your ideas about adoption?
  27. Surrendered Child is a “true” story, but it also often comments on truth-telling and even sometimes admits that particular memories may or may not be verifiable. Discuss truth-telling, and not, as it relates to this book—and to what we expect from memoirs in general.

Further reading suggestions

Being Found by Sarah Saffian

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler

An Unkindness of Ravens (poems) and The Secret of Me (young adult) by Meg Kearney

The Other Mother by Carol Schaefer

Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption by Emily Hipchen

Unlocking the Heart of Adoption (documentary) by Shelia Ganz

The Truth Book by Joy Castro