Review: Somebody Else’s Troubles

Somebody Elses Troubles

Somebody Else’s Troubles, J.A. English. Union Lake, MI: Zimbell House Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Several troubled individuals find their way to Mabuhay, a tiny Caribbean Island, and find in the troubles of others the possibility of the redemption of their own.

Five individual stories intersect on the tiny Caribbean island of Mabuhay. They come from Chicago, New York, and Athens, Ohio.

Travers Landeman inherited a family business, in a gradual declined propped up by government subsidies and transformed by the extra personnel these subsidies require. He is married to a shrew, Corinne, who shrewdly recognized that he’d be able to fund the lifestyle she coveted. Things come to a head when a nephew, sexually abused by a priest, commits suicide after reaching out in vain for help from Travers. A night with a prostitute leads to extortion, the decision to take flight to Mabuhay, and then to faking his own death. Albert Sidney McNab is a plodding but relentless insurance/private investigator who is convinced that Landeman never really died and is determined to find him. Apart from his sleuthing, he lives a lonely life.

The others in this tale are: Joe Rogers, whose best friend is a Vodka bottle. His former wife sets him up in a bookstore, complete with live-in help, Zero. The Yellow Harp gets off to a rocky start as a women’s group remembering the women’s history of the place (a former brothel) ends up starting a small fire, the damages from which turn out to be uninsured. A chance to fill in for an archaeologist on a dig in Mabuhay offers respite from it all. An accidental fall results in a near fatal ankle break, and the discovery of a singular ritual mask. Father Chester O’Reilly started out as a parish priest in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where he grew up under a power-grasping monsignor. The parish is declining due to white flight, and Father Chester is too honest about issues of race and justice to be farmed out to the suburbs. A bequest providing for an Austin priest to provide spiritual care to the natives of Mabuhay offers a way out, and as he embraces the ways of the island, they embrace him. Marguerite departs from her love, Schugay, to pursue nursing studies in Chicago, being connected to hosts in the Austin neighborhood by Father Chester. She’s mugged, and then after pursuing charges, raped by her mugger. Chicago is nothing but a series of losses for Marguerite, including the loss of Schugay. Heartbroken, Marguerite returns to Mabuhay.

The narrative moves back and forth between the individuals, tracing their paths to Mabuhay. Along the way, they become voices for the corruption and sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, the dynamics of white flight to the suburbs in Chicago, the war on drugs that made the careers of politicians and made neighborhoods like Austin the targets of drug busts, and the weasly practices of insurance companies and government funding programs. The story of Travers’ nephew is one of homosexual attraction when it couldn’t be spoken of, the intensity of his sexual experiences alternating with struggles with shame, compounded by a predatory priest. The confluence of these characters on Mabuhay opens up new choices for them in a new culture, for how they will live, and whether they will engage the troubles of “somebody else.”

It is interesting that the discussion guide for this novel raises the question of an authorial voice that editorializes at various places. I personally felt that the plot and characters were interesting enough and got at the issues explored in the editorial passages of the novel. I suspect the author, who continues to reside at least part of the time in the Austin neighborhood that is one of the settings of this novel, has strongly formed and important opinions for which this novel serves as a vehicle. I personally felt that he could have trusted the story to say these things for him. It did for me.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943).

Summary: A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn.

Published in 1943, this was one of those “books that went to war,” a special edition of which was carried in the rucksacks of soldiers in World War II as a reminder of home. Many wrote Betty Smith to tell her of what it meant to them.

The question one asks is what the abiding power of this book is. My sense of the answer is found in the sheer determination and grit of the character through whom the story is told, Francie Nolan. We first meet her as a young girl on a third floor fire escape, reading one of the latest books she has taken from the library (withdrawn in alphabetical order), looking over the patch of dirt out of which a tree had grown, “neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew upon green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas….No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky….It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district.”

I’m convinced that Francie is that tree–having a peculiar beauty, a resilience that thrives even under the toughest circumstances, struggling to reach for the sky and the stars, growing lushly amid the tenements of Brooklyn. She tells of her and her brother Neely, collecting rags and scrap, to bring home the pennies that help the family survive on their alcoholic father’s sporadic wages as a singing waiter and their mother’s cleaning work.

Smith vividly portrays the life from penny candy shops, to indifferent librarians, to brother-sister spats, loving her father’s voice, confirmation and first communion–and a terrifying attempted rape. Katie, Francie’s mother provides the steel that holds the family together while Johnny brings both the fun and the tragedy. Katie insists the children read a page of the Bible and Shakespeare each night, and imparts to them the importance of an education she never had. Francie picks this up, first lying her way into a better school, later longing to go on to high school and even college. When a teacher marks Francie’s compositions down despite her writing skills, rather than write the sweet drivel the teacher wants, Francie stops writing and takes a lower grade.

Johnny Nolan dies short of 35 and the family’s struggle for existence becomes yet more precarious, not only because of Johnny’s death, but also that he left Katie pregnant with Laurie. Wages from McGarrity’s bar help some. Then comes a painful scene where Katie decides upon Francie and Neely’s graduation that Francie would work while Neely goes to school. In spite of her disappointment, she holds a number of jobs, becoming the family breadwinner, even taking summer college courses. We watch a girl become a young woman, both with a determined sense of self and longings for love.

In the backdrop of her story are Katie’s twos sisters, Sissy and Evy. Evy’s husband seems a pitiful excuse of a man. Sissy goes through a series of “Johns” with whom she lives, in the quest to bear one live child until she finally meets a John named Steve. Through the conversations of these sisters the paradox of how good men are hard to find, men like McShane the policeman and aspiring politician with a sickly wife, and the attraction of men who end up not making good husbands. Most of the women whose characters are fleshed out are strong characters, even while they lack the formal power of men.

The other strong character in the book is Brooklyn itself. Smith evokes a sense of what the place was like in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the character who takes center stage is Francie. When America’s entry into the war is announced, this is how she reacts:

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

I’ll leave you to discover if Francie realizes all her dreams and is the “something” to which she aspires. What I will say is that the tree about which we’ve heard nothing through most of the narrative recurs in the final pages. Chopped down, it does not die, but rises again. “It lived! And nothing could destroy it.”

 

Review: Remembering

remembering

RememberingWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (originally published 1988).

Summary: Following the loss of a hand, a grieving Andy Catlett struggles with both his loss and his anger with agribusiness, that he believes is destroying a way of life, and gropes his way toward healing.

Andy Catlett is suffering from two losses, and struggles with anger from both. While harvesting crops with a neighbor, his right hand is mangled in a machine, resulting in the loss of the hand. One of the remarkable qualities of this narrative is how Berry explores the inner struggle of a capable man who struggles to write, to dress himself, and not make a nuisance of himself while doing farm chores. He is angry with himself, and quarreling incessantly with his wife, who sees through it all and Andy’s inability to forgive himself.

He has been angry with American agribusiness for a long period of time, how it has destroyed a way of life in the name of efficiency which underwrites equipment manufacturers, fuel and fertilizer interests, and banks at the expense of the few remaining farmers in perpetual debt. He saw its effects as a journalist, and sees them in the erosion of a way of life in the town to which he returned to farm, Port William. He is not an easy person to live with.

Catlett’s twin angers reach a crisis point when he leaves home, amid alienating arguments with his wife that seem to have no resolution, to speak at an agricultural conference. He sets aside his planned speech to excoriate the assembled experts, whose mathematical models do not touch the pain experienced by all those who have left farms. He tells the stories of his ancestors and friends from Port William, and how they have suffered under the ideas of the experts and ends with damning the enterprise.

The book is framed by two dreams, one in his hotel in San Francisco after speaking, the other in the woods near his Kentucky home, a beatific vision of a transformed Port William. In between, Catlett travels a journey of remembering, as he walks the streets of San Francisco to the bay, and then on his flight home. He recalls the speech, his arguments with Flora, his wife, the accident, his sense of being unmanned, cut off from his hand, as it were.

Perhaps the most effective portion was remembering his time as a journalist, and two interviews, one planned and one not. He visits the Meikelberger farm, the symbol of modern agriculture, with its huge grain bins, monstrous equipment, and 2,000 acres planted in nothing but corn as far as the eye can see. It is an impressive operation but beneath the impressive appearance is a man with an ulcer, incessant worry over perpetual debt, all built atop old farmsteads that have disappeared. He detours, enroute to Pittsburgh, through Amish country in eastern Ohio, stops to watch a farmer plowing his field with a team of three beautiful horses. He sees a well-kept farmstead, and nearby farms.  He is offered a chance to plow with the team, bringing back childhood memories. As he questions Yoder, he learns the farm has no debt, and Yoder, who is older than Meikelberger looks ten years younger. If he needs help, there are nearby neighbors to pitch in.

It’s what led Catlett back to farming, restoring an old abandoned property he and friends had long talked about. Flora and Andy make a go of it, becoming part of the membership of Port William. And then the accident….The question remains of whether Andy will find healing and a new kind of wholeness as he journeys home.

In this work, Berry weaves his own convictions about the destruction of an agricultural way of life, of communities, and the land with an perceptive exploration of what the loss of a hand can mean, and whether Andy will suffer destruction of his self, his marriage, and his way of life. There are achingly beautiful passages and deeply troubling ones as we plumb the depths of Andy’s turmoil. Berry invites us to consider both the healing of deeply wounded people, as well as deeply wounded lands and communities.

 

Review: The Dearly Beloved

The dearly beloved

The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: Two couples, the men holding a joint call to a New York City church in a time of change, two wives utterly unlike, and the bonds forged between them as they lean into suffering and the challenges of faith each approaches differently.

The story of Charles and Lily, James and Nan. The story is framed by the death of one of them, and the closely woven friendships forged between four very different people, two of whom were intensely at odds with each other–the fabric of which was rent by this death.

Charles is the son of old blood New Englanders, whose father was a Harvard professor. Charles comes to faith when posed with the question of what faith meant to the medieval people he was studying, discovering that faith in God could be as real for him as for them, and in this realization, he hears a call to ministry.

Lily, bereft of parents in childhood, has lost all faith in God, and hopes to immerse herself in her books and her scholarship at Radcliffe–until she meets Charles, who loves and believes in her, even though she cannot believe in his God.

Nan, a ministers daughter, has grown up believing and modeling her life after her father’s ministry and her mother’s role as a minister’s wife. She goes to the bastion of Christian belief at Wheaton College to study music ministry. She has been raised to see need and help.

James grows up with an alcoholic father, one wounded psychically during World War Two. An uncle recognizes his potential and sends him to the University of Chicago. At a recital, he meets Nan, who is the accompanist. As he asks her father for her hand in marriage, he shares both his decision to become a minister, and his own struggle to believe. He does not so much believe in God but believes in ministry, in actions of service as God’s call for those who would believe.

The four end up at Third Presbyterian Church, in Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1960’s. The church is in decline, and believes the gifts of the two men together are what they need to minister in a time of change. There lives are regimented by Jane Atlas, their secretary, and under her tutelage, learn the character of their congregation and forge a working partnership, one in which each will fight for the faith and place of the other in the church at some point.

Meanwhile, Lily and Nan come to detest each other. Lily wants no more to do with the church than to support Charles. Nan wants them to get along, wants to help out, wants to care and is rebuffed. It becomes more difficult when Lily has twins, and Nan has miscarriages. And when Nan attempts to help when Lily’s one son is diagnosed as autistic, her sympathy repulses Lily who in turn rebuffs her efforts, even as she and Charles struggle with despair of finding help for their son’s condition, for which at that time their was little to be done but institutionalize such children.

The rest of the story is how these four people struggle, against their own feelings, their pasts, and their pain, to forge deep relationships on the other side of misunderstandings, resentment, and deep despair. The story is one that moves beyond pieties to the gritty struggles involved in believing in a world of loss, of pain, and conflict. To mention the death with which the book opens is not a spoiler–the real story is whether and how theses four will find and navigate life together, coming from such different places.

This is Cara Wall’s debut novel. She creates four central characters, each strong in very different ways. This is neither a cloyingly sweet “religious” novel, nor one that deprecates religious faith as inevitably an exercise of hypocrisy. It explores the struggles of faith, the combination of noble aspirations, and the hidden selves that those who have these aspirations bring with them. We also see a community, whether a church session, a tough old secretary, or even the four principle characters, who do not let each other drift apart, when it would be easy to do.

This work was reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where Robinson was part of the faculty. I was reminded of the relationship of Reverend Ames and Reverend Boughton in Robinson’s works, and their own wrestlings with calling, struggles of faith, and loss. At the same time, whereas Robinson’s distinctive Calvinism runs through her works, Wall’s theological world is much more mainline Christian, focused around God rather than Christ, and much less concerned with the content than the experience of belief and doubt. What stands out in Wall is her respect for her characters, allowing them to develop, not through theological arguments or marked religious experiences, but as each learns to respect, and sometimes forgive, the uniqueness of the other, often finding something shifting, not in the other but in themselves.

This is insightful writing, and I look forward to seeing what else this writer will bring us.

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

Review: There There

there there

There ThereTommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Summary: The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making their way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland.

Tommy Orange has done for “Urban Indians” what Sherman Alexie has done for those on the reservations. In There There, he captures in the stories of twelve people a cumulative narrative of the quest for identity of Native Americans living in cities. They are people who in various ways are trying to figure out what it means, beyond ancestry and heritage to live as Native Americans in urban America.

In both Prologue  and Interlude, Orange discusses the dispossession of Native peoples from their lands, the struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, the challenges to discover one’s identity and the significance of powwows like the Big Oakland Powwow.

The book is structured around the stories of twelve people whose lives are connected who will end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. The book opens with Tony Loneman, “the ‘Drome” representing his birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. He deal drugs with Octavio, along with Charles who is owed money by his brother Calvin. These four hatch a plot to steal the prize money at the powwow, using 3-D printed guns to elude metal detectors. Others come for different reasons. Dene Oxendene is there to set up a story booth to capture the stories of his people. Thomas Frank is a former custodian at the Indian Center and a drummer at the powwow. Edwin Black is a bi-racial young man who lives on the internet who discovers his father is Harvey by accessing his mother Karen’s social media and takes an internship at the Indian Center, coordinating the powwow. Karen’s boyfriend, Bill Davis, a Vietnam veteran, works cleaning up trash at the stadium where the powwow will be held, having held a series of jobs after a prison term in San Quentin. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield cares for three of her half-sister Jacquie Redfeather’s grandchildren including Orvil who discovers Indian regalia packed away in a closet and wants to dance at the powwow. Jacquie, living on the edge of substance abuse, works as a substance abuse counselor. Jacquie and Opal were part of the Alcatraz occupation in 1970, where Jacquie had sex forced on her by the same Harvey, resulting in a daughter who she adopted out. That daughter happens to be Blue, the head of the powwow committee. In a weird turn of events Harvey and Jacquie encounter each other at a substance abuse conference and an AA meeting, and end up traveling together to the powwow.

The narrative moves back and forth between these characters who represent the conflicting currents of Urban Indian identity, from the criminal to those devoted to the cause, or to people they love. The book is organized around four parts: Remain-Reclaim-Return-Powwow, terms that reflect both movement toward the climactic powwow with the threat of violence, and the struggle to reverse the effects of dispossession.

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland — “There is no there there.” Orange writes:

“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The book retraces the struggle to recover a sense of identity and community, and some kind of way of life when there is no “there there.” For the most part, it seems the women fare better at this in the book. Even though Jacquie, Opal, and Blue bear the wounds of their heritage and upbringing, they are the ones caring for others, offering stability and direction to a next generation. Only Bill Davis seems to have clawed his way to some settled identity while the other men are either groping, or descending into criminality.

This is not a “feel good” book. But perhaps those of us who are the descendants of the disposessors need to understand the trauma that has worked its way down the generations. What is evident in a number of the stories is a perhaps inchoate sense that there is something valuable “there” in one’s native heritage that must not be given up on but striven for, perhaps in the shared telling of stories that both Dene Oxendene’s storybooth and this book represents.

Review: The Quiet American

the quiet american

The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1955).

Summary: A novel set in French-occupied Vietnam paralleling the entangled lives of a British journalist and American agent with the entanglement of war in Vietnam.

Thomas Fowler, a British correspondent in French occupied Vietnam in the early 1950’s, arrives at home one night to find Phuong waiting outside. She reports that American  Alden Pyle has not returned home. She has been living with Pyle, supposedly with an American Economic Mission. Before living with Pyle, she had lived with Fowler. She stays the night, and they learn the next morning that Pyle is dead when they are summoned for questioning by the French Sureté.

Graham Greene then narrates the strange conflicted relationship of these two men who love one woman, and the equally entangled and conflicted relationships of all those who get involved in Vietnam. Fowler wants to believe that he is the uninvolved British journalist, whose country is not a party to the conflict. He has a wife at home from whom he is separated but who will not divorce him. Phuong meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes and she benefits materially from his attention but he can offer nothing more, although holding out the hope of a divorce. Pyle, who loves her at first sight, is unattached and due to come into money becomes a rival, candidly telling Fowler his intentions, and yet strangely taking to Fowler as his best friend, He saves Fowler’s life at one point when they are stranded in enemy territory, and steals Phuong.

Fowler gradually learns that Pyle isn’t all that he seems. He discovers that Pyle is doing something with plastics, that turn out to be plastic explosives, being used to undermine the regime in Saigon. He is actually a CIA agent. Fowler is curious, but remains detached until a bombing of a square intended to break up a parade that is cancelled kills and maims scores of innocents, an act with the fingerprints of Pyle all over it. He faces hard choices of what to do with his knowledge of this “quiet American,” his rival in love, yet one in some ways to whom he is beholden.

Fowler has tried to avoid entangling involvements. A conversation with a French pilot who napalmed villages describes the folly of such an attempt, in both love, and in the Vietnam conflict. When Fowler protests, “That’s why I won’t be involved.” the French pilot replies:

” ‘It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love–they have always been compared.’ He looked sadly across the dormitory to where the métisse sprawled in her great temporary peace. He said, ‘I would not have it otherwise. There is a girl who was involved by her parents–what is her future when this port falls. France is only half her home…’ “

Greene’s tale was prescient, published in 1955, of the troubling future that would face, first the French, and then the Americans, already present, in Vietnam. Fowler discovered that he, too, was involved with Phuong, with Pyle, and that Vietnam was a far more complicated mistress than any understood. He evades his editors requests to return to London. Love and War has claimed him, as it would many others.

Sadly, this was an instance of prophecy ignored, and it could be argued that there have been others since. We are still in Iraq, and Afghanistan, unable to extricate ourselves from commitments made in “moments of emotion.”  The Quiet American is a cautionary tale as relevant in our times as it was in the mid-1950’s. Hopefully, we will not proceed as heedlessly now as we did then.

Review: A World Lost

a world lost

A World Lost, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. (no publisher’s webpage available)

Summary: Young Andy Catlett’s life is forever changed the day his namesake Uncle Andrew is murdered, an event he spends a lifetime trying to understand.

Andy Catlett is nine years old on the summer day when his adored Uncle Andrew refused to take him on a job salvaging material from an old building. Otherwise it is a perfect day with a satisfying dinner with grandparents, meandering across farm fields, quenching his thirst at a cold spring, watching insects and a world alive, and swimming in a pond to cool off, even though it was forbidden. He arrives home that evening in 1944 to be told by his father that Uncle Andrew had been shot twice by the ill-tempered Carp Harmon. Shortly after he dies.

It is like a long swath of fabric being torn out of a favorite shirt for all of them, never to be repaired. He tells of being with his grandparents and father one night, all of them in tears as they think of what they’ve lost. And shortly after, grandfather dies. Andy’s father no longer plays songs on their piano. We learn how close his disciplined, responsible father came to savage revenge. Something had been snatched out of their world that left it irreparably changed. As the title states, a world lost.

But who was the beloved uncle, brother, son, and why did Carp Harmon kill him? Andy spends the rest of his life trying to understand these things and this novel is his narrative of both discovery and lingering questions. Uncle Andrew was the strong, handsome ladies man who married into the town’s elite, only to live in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife and demanding mother-in-law. He struggled financially, drank too much, and was trying to put his life back together with his brother’s help. This complicated man was the uncle Andy adored.

He interviews witnesses to the murder, reads news stories, and trial records. None of it fully makes sense and often seems contradictory. Even the accounts of whether Uncle Andrew had done anything to provoke the murder conflict. Letters in his father’s effects, shed little more light. It was senseless, as all murder is senseless. He wonders sometimes if things would have been any different had he been with Uncle Andrew that day.

This is the narrative of any family who has suddenly lost someone by violent means. Life may go on but it can never be the same. We discover the complicated mystery of the one we have loved and lost, the shades of light and dark that comprise the portrait of a life, and the ambiguities that fail to resolve. We wrestle with making sense of the senseless–and fail. We carry our own private grief, guilt, perplexity, and trauma, hidden to the world but never far from mind.

Wendell Berry, in his measured way, unfolds this exploration of a world lost in the context of the Port William membership we’ve met in other novels. We have the familiar backdrop of the web of relations and the care of the family farms and the work that must be done that reminds us of the tension of darkness and life within which we live. Berry captures that tension in the narrator’s concluding reflections:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

“That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.”

 

Review: Commonwealth

commonwealth

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

Summary: Traces the lives of six children and the parents from two families over five decades from the beginnings of an affair at a christening that broke up two marriages and threw the children together.

“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

In one sense, the whole story of Commonwealth turns on that first line. Albert Cousins joins Fix Keating’s wife Beverly in the kitchen as they make drinks, and imbibe in a few, setting up the beginnings of an affair that led each to divorce their spouses, Teresa and Fix, throwing together the two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, and the four Cousins children together, Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie, who spend much of their growing up years together in Virginia (the Commonwealth).

The book moves between their childhood together, how this “blended family” negotiates the passage into adulthood, and maturity. Two of the six children dominate the narrative–Franny and Albie.

Franny, the baby at the christening seems to wander through much of her life, dropping out of law school, unlike her successful patent attorney sister, working as a cocktail waitress, and living for a number of years with novelist Leon Posen, who appropriates the family story in a best selling novel, Commonwealth, rejuvenating his career.

Albie, the youngest Cousins was the annoying younger brother, often dealt with by “tic-tacs” from his older brother (benedryl) that put him to sleep and out of their hair, which he was on the fatal day when Cal dies on an outing with the others. Only when he reads Posen’s book, given him as a bicycle messenger to publishers in New York, does he understand the unwitting part he played in his brother’s death, and figures out how the family’s story was appropriated. He’s staying with Jeannette and her husband in a cramped New York apartment. Meanwhile, Holly is off in Switzerland, meditating.

Fifty years later, Fix is dying of esophageal cancer and the other parents are aging. We see how the surviving children of these two families come to terms with their shared family history, the parents they lived with, and those they visited on custodial visits. The tender moments with Fix are those with Franny. Albie, who nearly burned down a school when he was living a difficult adolescence with Teresa becomes the one who checks in on her in her later years. Weirdly, despite Albie’s anger with Franny for giving away the family story, there is a bond between them as the youngest children that brings them together in the closing parts of the book.

Guns, kept but unused, figure both in the death of Cal, and with Fix who wants Franny to end his suffering. Gin also recurs at the end of the story between Albert and the baby at the christening–now mature Franny, married to Kumar in Chicago. Circles close, but Franny makes different choices, keeping “something for herself.”

I’m still deciding what I think of this book. As always, I love the writing of Patchett and the complexity of her characters and their relationships. There is no great crisis or drama–simply the wandering ways of different children trying to find their ways in life, the quarrels and reconciliations that occur in families. The number of children, the movements between childhood, early and later adulthood felt disjointed at times. Perhaps as much as anything, this reflects the disruption and disjointedness that affairs and divorce bring into the lives of all who are touched by them, and the ways children have to come to terms with step-parents, step siblings, non-custodial birth parents. It all seems very modern, a story many readers have lived themselves. Will they see themselves in Patchett’s characters? Will they like what they see or gain insight as they follow these characters through their lives? Will they want to? I’ll leave that to you.

 

Review: Adam Bede

Adam Bede

Adam BedeGeorge Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (first published 1859).

Summary: A tale centering around the love of Adam Bede, a woodworker, for Hetty Sorrel, a dairy maid who is eventually tried for murder of her infant child, conceived in an affair with the local squire, Arthur Donnithorne.

One reviewer of this book wondered why this book was not titled Hetty Sorrel. It’s a fair question. So much of the story seems to center around Hetty, the niece of tenants Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, who works with them as a dairy maid. She knows she is beautiful and one to turn the heads of all the young men around, including the hard working, respectable Adam Bede, a woodworker. Instead she falls for the son of the local landowner, Arthur Donnithorne, who woos her into a love affair, which he breaks off when forcibly shown the error of his ways by Adam. Unknown to either, Hetty is pregnant. Finally, Hetty recognizes Adam’s qualities and agrees to marry him, until realizing she is pregnant and can no longer conceal her condition. She flees to London, seeking Arthur’s help. But he is far off in Ireland. During a harrowing return journey, she gives birth, then abandons her child to die, and is arrested for murder.

It turns out that Eliot indeed wrote the story around a real-life incident in which a similarly afflicted woman, Mary Voce, murdered her child, was tried and sentenced to death. This edition includes journal entries from Eliot describing the genesis of the book in this incident. Why then should the book not have been titled Hetty Sorrel?

The answer, it seems to me, lies in the portrayals of a number of the other characters, local figures of no great distinction, as ordinary people with both foibles, and great qualities of character leading to actions that sustain the fabric of a rural community, and when tragic errors rend the fabric of local life, act with quiet wisdom and grace.

Chief of these is Adam Bede, elder brother of Seth and son of Lisbeth, the widow of a drunkard. His hard work as a woodworker gains the respect of all around, and while his father was living, finishing much of his neglected work, including a coffin on the night when he drowned in a local creek after a drunken binge. Eventually, his childhood friend, Donnithorne, taps him to manage his forest while the owner of the carpentry workshop is hoping Adam will succeed him, and even marry his daughter. It is Adam who searches for Hetty when she does not turn up when expected and keeps vigil during her trial.

But there are others. There is Dinah, the Methodist preacher, the object of Seth’s love, not to be returned but who has a way of gently coming alongside all from the elderly to children who are in distress, eventually including Hetty. There are the Poysers, salt of the earth farmers, she of strong opinion but warm heart, he of sturdy affection and integrity. Rev. Adolphus Irwine, the local rector, is no religious firebrand, but exhibits quiet pastoral wisdom that seems “the word fitly spoken” in every situation. Crusty Bartle Massey, the schoolmaster, cares deeply for the pupils of his night school, Adam chief among them. Even Arthur Donnithorne, now the landowner when his grandfather dies, is transformed by the tragedy, perhaps in ways surprising to the other principals.

This passage, full of insight, representative of many, reflects Eliot’s focus on the development of character among all these “ordinary people”:

“For Adam, though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from him as a temporary burthen, and leave him the same man again. Do any of us? God forbid. It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness” (p. 487).

Yes, Eliot could spin some long sentences! Yet as I followed her into this story, I was reminded of the instances in real human life in the communities of which I have been a part of ordinary people, decent people who meet tragedy and grow through it, acting with resolve and compassion toward each other and sustaining the bonds of society. She challenges our attraction to superficial beauty and charisma, and calls us to a quiet greatness of character that endures.