“The Name She Gave Me” by Betty Culley; HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2022; 416 pages, hardcover, $17.99.

So, for National Poetry Month 2022, I’ve been reading a novel.

Betty Culley’s “The Name She Gave Me” is the story told in verse of Rynn Parkman, an adopted 16-year-old living in the small town of Beacon, Maine. As the story opens, Rynn is contemplating the obstacles involved in finding her birth mother. She has one clue to her origins: The name given to her by her birth mother is Scheherazade, teller of the stories of the thousand and one nights.

As Rynn makes trips to the office of her adoption agency and searches online obituaries, clues reveal she has a younger sister, Sorella, who is also a foster child. Rynn’s adoptive dad, retired from what may have been a career as a spy, now is a garlic farmer in the weighty position of mediator between Rynn and the adoptive mom, who is chronically, “volcanically” angry with Rynn. Meanwhile Rynn is surrounded by a friendly neighborhood that includes fellow teenager June Tibbetts and her gregarious family; a 15-year-old boy from away who has been sentenced (so to speak) to spend the summer with a relative in town; and a neighbor who has enlisted Rynn to babysit her 2-year-old son.

The characters are exceptionally deftly drawn, notably the voice of feisty 8-year-old Sorella. The scenes in which Rynn and her adoptive mom clash are painfully realistic, and despite the friction the mom engenders, she’s so well-drawn that it’s possible to pity her. When Rynn finally feels she has no choice but to flee her mother’s anger, the generosity of the Tibbetts family (which will be familiar to any Maine readers who live outside the suburbs) and the love and patient good judgment of her dad shine.

Among a number of clearly developed motifs, Rynn gives running consideration to the multiple names – legal, imaginary and nickname – of everyone around her. This points in a lot of thematic directions, but one in particular: the elusive problem of “family” centers on Rynn trying to figure out what her real name is. Is it the one given to her when she was adopted; or is it Scheherazade; or is it Sherry, as Sorella wants to call her? And should she call her new-found little sister Ella; what will Sorella’s name be after she’s finally adopted?

So the story of the names is the story of Rynn’s family. Who is her real family? The kindly adoptive father and angry adoptive mother? The birth mother and father she never knew? The neighborhood community? The Tibbettses who take her in? A lost uncle in Arizona? Or is it no one? Or everyone?


It’s been easy, here, to skate right over the fact that Rynn and Sorella tell the story in a long series of short lyric poems. This is possible because the story moves along with such momentum that you frankly forget you’re reading poems. And yet a key to the quick pace is the spareness of the language – the short, well-crafted, conversational lines sketch exactly the imagery, events and emotional information needed from chapter to short chapter.

Betty Culley’s previous book, “Three Things I Know Are True,” is also narrated in verse by a teenage girl; it moves along in the same spare clarity, yet with levels of complexity that you normally expect of poetry speaking to readers of fully mature emotional and intellectual sensitivities. These books are promoted by their publisher as “teen” reading, but they raise questions about identity and moral responsibility that functioning adults wrestle with for life.

And in fact, we learn from the cover notes that Betty Culley, who lives in Mercer, was an adopted child, only encountering her biological siblings later in life. “The Name She Gave Me” seems like a product of Culley’s own wrestle. While her books are about teenagers, they’re as much or more for adults.

“The Name She Gave Me” is available for pre-order through the author’s website and other online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at offradar@dwildepress.net.

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