Never Stop Dancing, by John Robinette and Robert Jacoby

Jacoby

An ordinary man at work on an ordinary day sits through the regular weekly meeting, gets a soda, talks with a co-worker. Then he hears someone say, “That’s John.” And sees a police officer looking at him.

On that clear and beautiful April day, John’s wife Amy was knocked down by a truck as she crossed a street and died.

His close friend Robert, a journalist and author of two books, wanted to help, but what can you do? What can you say?

What Robert did was suggest that he interview John several times over the course of the next year, John’s first year without Amy. Because their friendship included an openness and sharing considered unusual between men, Robert hoped the interviews would give John a safe space to talk about his feelings. He also thought that someday John’s two young children would want to know more about this first year without Amy, and that perhaps “John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on.”

And Robert himself, not unacquainted with loss and grief, was curious:

I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost.

In this powerful, if sometimes wrenching, joint memoir we move between Robert and John’s voices. Emotions are laid bare; the small and large moments—cleaning out Amy’s closet, signing the children up for Little League—are exposed. Robert says, “It felt like we were opening up the brutal places of human existence and emotion, holding things up for discovery and examination.”

Both John and Robert are smart, articulate and curious. They wrestle with the questions most of us struggle with in our lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does religion offer answers and comfort or just empty promises? Does grief ever fade? And if it does, have we betrayed our loved one?

It’s a remarkable book. John and Robert’s startling honesty and candor, holding nothing back, can’t help but open our hearts and ease our own empty places.

Most poignant are the scenes with John’s two young sons, four and seven, as they try to come to grips with their devastating loss. As John later says, he may someday find someone else to love and share his life with, but “My boys can never have another mother.”

Another devastating but comforting scene is when ten members of John’s church come to his home to sit with him shortly after Amy’s death. Curled on the floor, overwhelmed by grief, John feels them silently touching him, holding him. A laying on of hands. Held in that love and compassion he is able to find calm.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to step into the lives and hearts of these two men. Their story made me feel I’d opened the box and everything flew away except for one thing, and that one thing was love. By opening themselves to each other, John and Robert invite us into their community, to hold each other in love and compassion and to find peace.

Have you read a memoir that made you feel a part of something larger?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The writing is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

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As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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I never read these books as a child, being too busy with fairy tales and Arthurian stories, and never saw the television series. However, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, came highly recommended to me, so I thought I’d better catch up on these children’s books.

In this, the third book in the loosely autobiographical series, Laura and her family leave their beloved Wisconsin house in the big woods, described in the first book, and set out for Kansas. The experience of traveling in a covered wagon is vividly conveyed, seen from young Laura’s perspective, though the discomforts are minimised. Laura, her older sister Mary, and baby Carrie get restless sitting in the wagon all day, and Laura worries about the dog Jack who has to run the whole way, but she’s also fascinated by all she sees and comforted by the sound of the horses feeding as she goes to sleep.

As in the other books, the small family encounters hazards and setback, but Ma and Pa can always be relied upon to keep the girls safe and feeeling loved. Eventually they find themselves on an open, seemingly uninhabited prairie near Independence, Kansas. The descriptions of the grasslands—their shy colors and scents, their creatures and breezes—show a genuine love of this land.

Reading this book as an adult gives me a curious double perspective. I know too well the ecological damage done by farmers like Pa plowing up the fragile prairie. I know too much about blatant lies of the government and railroads that lured homesteaders onto lands not appropriate for wheat farming, and of course about the injustice and genocide visited upon the Osages who in fact inhabited this land.

There has been some outcry about the depiction of the Osages in these books, but at least in this one I found it pretty even-handed. Remember that it is from a child’s point of view, one who knows nothing of the larger picture or the history. When the Native Americans do turn up on their seasonal migration, Ma and some of the other nearby homesteaders are afraid of them, but Pa treats them as neighbors, with courtesy and respect. Young Laura describes the ones she actually meets as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I also know too much about poverty, and do not take at face value the nostalgic recreation of life in a one-room cabin with sometimes only potatoes for dinner. If I’d read this book as a young child, in a bedroom well-stocked with toys and books, nourished on three balanced meals a day, I wonder how I would have reacted to young Laura’s blissful descriptions of her single doll, a rag doll made by Ma, and the comfort of a single potato or turnip for dinner and Pa’s fiddle afterwards.

As an adult, I was fascinated with her detailed description of the house Pa built: the way he notched the logs, put on the roof, built the door, and crafted leather hinges for it. Laura’s childish pursuits are charming, but what captured me was Ma and Pa’s endless toil, the heartbreak of lost harvests, the impossibility of breaking even.

It was not a simpler time; it was an infinitely more difficult time. I’ve chopped wood for winter fuel and washed clothes with a washboard. I’ve tried to live off what I can raise. The hardships of frontier life, of homesteading don’t seem romantic to me. Perhaps they might have if I’d read these books as a child, unaware of all that was being glossed over.

Have you read or reread a children’s book that seems different to you as an adult?