Review: Our Missing Hearts

Our Missing Hearts, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

Summary: Bird Gardner and his father spend life trying not to be noticed, even as Bird wonders about his mother, the stories she told, why she left them, and where she has gone in a country that turned against her poetry even as one phrase became a rallying cry for all those separated from their children.

This is a haunting work because one sees all the elements except for a PACT act. Economic crisis. Anti-Asian prejudice and violence. The use of blaming foreign powers and actors for our problems. The use of state power to separate children from their parents. The removal of books from schools and libraries. The surveillance state we have lived in since 9/11.

All of this comes together around a twelve year old boy, Bird Gardner, living with his father, who works in an academic library, who loves words, and desperately is working to avoid anything to raise suspicion that could result in Bird being taken away from him. Bird’s mother Margaret left them when he was nine. A book of poems she wrote when she was carrying him, and one poem in particular with the line “our missing hearts” became associated with the rallying cry and symbol of a resistance movement to the forced removal of children from their homes for the least suspicion of violating the PACT Act (Preserving American Culture and Traditions).

Although his father has taught Bird that they must disavow her and have no communication with her, he both misses her and wonders why she would leave them and what she is doing now. Sadie, a school friend, and one of the removed children, thinks his mother is part of the resistance movement that, out of nowhere puts up protest installations of hearts or other symbols of the missing children.

But Bird doesn’t learn the true story until a series of clues that begins with a letter without return address covered with cat drawings leads to looking in a closet in their former home (still owned but closed up while they live in a dorm apartment), where Bird finds an address in New York City.

With the help of a librarian, who is part of an underground network of librarians who are collecting a database of parents and missing children, Bird figures out how to get to New York where he reconnects with his mother through a rich mutual friend, Dutchess (Domi) who lives at the address he’d found. Over several days in a derelict house, his mother tells the story of her life–how she and Domi survived the Crisis which led to the passage of the PACT act, how she met Bird’s father, wrote a book of poetry with paltry sales until the death of one protestor carrying the words “our missing hearts” was captured in a photograph at the moment she was fatally shot. The book was found among her effects, sold like crazy until the authorities shut it down, and vilified the author, who’d never meant to spawn a resistance.

She tells of the decision to leave to save Bird from being parted from both parents, and her awakening as she learned of what had happened to so many children that she had avoided knowing. She tells the story as she makes bottle cap devices with wires and transistors and “seeds” these throughout the city for her own act of resistance.

I have not heard the audio version of this but the voice I hear is one of quiet, but insistent wondering, both of Bird, and then of Margaret. Each is trying to unravel a story, Bird of his mother, Margaret of all the lost children, beginning with the young woman who died in protest. Both are engaged in a quiet resistance rooted in the pursuit of truth–unwilling to accept any longer the “comply and keep your head down” ethic fostered by PACT. Even Bird’s decision at the very end reflects that quiet, resistant pursuit of truth.

The haunting thing about this book is the awareness that the dystopian state Ng portrays is not that far removed from our present day reality. As I mentioned in the beginning, nearly all of the pieces are there. I suspect most of us are, like Margaret, among those who do not want to see, who think, this cannot happen here. The author of Little Fires Everywhere could have called this Little Resistances Everywhere. Ng portrays what a resistance of truth that will not bow to power might look like. And in doing so, this book feels like it is Ng’s own quiet act of resistance.

Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 (originally published in 1953).

Summary: An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.”

It is John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. He’s the well-behaved older son who can never please his father Gabriel, who struggles with his awakening sexuality, a deep sense of both sin, and resentment of his father’s religion. After doing his chores, his mother gives him some money to spend on his own birthday gift. He goes to the movies. When he returns, he finds his younger brother Roy has been cut up in a knife fight. His father is so angry he takes it out on his wife Elizabeth and John before he finally whips Roy, until Gabriel’s sister Florence restrains him. John slips out to clean the church with his older friend Elisha for the evening “tarrying service,” a pentecostal prayer service on Saturday night before the Sunday service.

The second part centers around the prayer service, and the three prayers of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Florence, to get away from the town where three white men raped a girl, Deborah, but even more, from her brother Gabriel, always favored, moves to New York, marries Frank who never settles down, leaves her for another woman, and dies in the war. She’s the worldly wise Aunt who sees through her brother’s spiritual facades. Gabriel starts out living a wanton life, then is “saved” and becomes a great preacher. Deborah, the raped woman prayed for him and supported him at his lowest. He marries her in an act of both gratitude and condescension, as no one else will have her. It is a childless marriage and grows cold. Gabriel’s affair with Esther leads to a child. She goes away to have the child with money stolen from Deborah, dies in childbirth, as does the child in his youth–the first Roy (for Royal), named by Esther remembering what Gabriel said he wanted to name his son. Gabriel lives with deep guilt for what he has done and the deaths that resulted, and his deception of now-deceased Deborah. Elizabeth’s prayer recalls the loveless aunt who rescued her from growing up in a brothel, parting her from her father, her flight and affair with Richard who gets her with child, then commits suicide after being arrested for being Black at the wrong place and time. Through Florence she meets and marries Gabriel, who sees the marriage as a kind of atonement for his sin. But he never loves Elizabeth’s child, John like their own son, also named Roy.

The third part begins with John on the floor experiencing a vision that recalls the hostility of his father toward him, his hatred of his father’s religion and struggle with the weight of his sins, and finally, “going through” to blessed salvation, bringing rejoicing from all the saints, and brotherly comfort from Elisha. But Gabriel is yet harsh and disbelieving. One cannot help if he resents the grace he sees in John’s experience that he has never certainly known for himself, for he could never live with Elizabeth joyfully, but only oppressively. There is a lot of guilt here, that centers around Gabriel, but also may reflect the version of Christianity Baldwin experienced. Much of that guilt is experienced around sexuality, even the awakening desires both Elisha and John experience. The alternatives seem to be ecstatic release in prayer at the altar, rebellion via a flight to the secular city, or a stern and censorious form of religion.

One wonders where all this will end up for John, who seems a younger version of the author, caught between the angry step-father and the caring older “brother” (is he more than that, reflecting Baldwin’s homosexual orientation?). Baldwin never takes us beyond that single day in John Grimes life, yet it appears that the day is the first step into a greater freedom that Gabriel can only resent but never know.

Review: Native Son

Native Son, Richard Wright. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989 (first published in 1940).

Summary: The story of Bigger Thomas, whose unpremeditated murder of Mary Dalton and second murder covering up the first, fires rage and fear in Chicago, and in a strange way gives meaning to a young man who felt himself imprisoned in Chicago’s Black Belt.

This is an uncomfortable book to read from the moment Bigger Thomas wakes up until the last pages. It is uncomfortable to view the rat-infested tenement room a family of four share, where Bigger’s first act is to kill a giant rat with a pan.

It is uncomfortable to hear Bigger’s mother nag him about going to the job set up by the relief program. He already has a record for theft, some of which he’s involved his girlfriend Bessie in.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him plot to rob a white jeweler with his three friends. Then when one doesn’t show up on time, he nearly slits his throat in anger.

It’s uncomfortable to go to the Daltons and be treated so well by the family and other household staff. Mr. Dalton has an interest in the companies operating the tenement housing Bigger lives in, confining Blacks to one area of south Chicago known as the Black Belt. He also gives lots of money to charities for the uplift of Blacks and employs people recommended by the relief agency who sent Bigger–an uncomfortable tension of interests that emerges as the story unfolds.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger on his first chauffeuring job, supposedly taking Mary Dalton, the Dalton’s only daughter to a lecture, but in reality to a rendezvous with a Communist lover, Jan. We sense Bigger’s discomfort as he takes them to a south side restaurant to eat “his kind of food,” and invited to socialize with them while proselytized into the Communist cause. We sense his discomfort as Jan drives with all of them in the front seat, then as they drink while he drives.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger having to help the drunken Mary into the house, and up to her room, getting her to bed, only to have her blind mother come in to this incriminating scene. We sense his discomfort as he tries to silence her so her mother won’t discover his presence and think Mary asleep in a drunken stupor, and when Mrs. Dalton leaves, to find he has asphyxiated her and she is dead.

It’s uncomfortable to witness Bigger’s desperation which leads him to stuff her in the trunk she’s taking to Detroit, to haul it to the basement and stuff her body into the coal furnace, hacking off her head so it would all fit, and then feeding the fire but fearing to remove the ashes for what he might find.

It’s uncomfortable as Mary’s disappearance becomes known to watch Bigger deflect suspicions toward Jan while involving his girlfriend in a ransom plot, ultimately telling her what he’s done, and then as Mary’s bones are found in the furnace ashes, fleeing with Bessie to an abandoned building where he has sex with her then kills her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft, where she did not immediately die.

It’s uncomfortable to see the police cordon close around him, then the final futile efforts to elude capture. It’s uncomfortable to hear the racist vitriol, of crowds who would lynch him and a prosecutor who charges him with rape as well as murder.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him tell his communist attorney, Mr. Max, how, for a brief moment, when he killed, he felt his most free and alive, how in these moments, he found meaning, a momentary escape from the destiny to which his birth and race, in his own mind, had imprisoned him.

His relationship with his attorney, who made an impassioned plea before the court for his life, is the one shining moment. Someone who asked him questions, and listened, and treated him as a man. No one understands more of his life than this man. But he is not a confessor. While Bigger tells the truth of what he had done, there was no remorse, no repentance.

We want to argue that Bigger could have made different choices. Yet the sense is of a human being trapped–in a tenement, into reliance on white charity, in an awkward social situation with two people with no clue who “mean well,” in Mary Dalton’s bedroom where no good explanation could be made for his presence. We’re rightly horrified by the murders, but also at the logic by which Bigger finds meaning in them.

We’re left uncomfortable with social structures that the execution of this young killer will not change. We’re left uncomfortable with the thought of how many other Biggers lurk in such structures–also wanting to do things with their lives, also questing for meaning, perhaps in distorted ways that will end badly for them and others. And this is as it should be. A minister friend of mine once remarked that he believed the gospel not only offered comfort to the disturbed but also disturbed the comfortable. This book does the latter. Don’t read it if you want to remain in comfort.

Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.

Review: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994 (Originally published in 1913).

Summary: The first of the Great Plains Trilogy, the story of Alexandra Bergson’s love of the Nebraska hills, the costly choices she made, and the ill-fated love of her brother Emil.

I’ve only recently discovered Willa Cather, and realized that I have missed reading one of America’s great writers. This work, the first volume in the Great Plains Trilogy centers around Alexandra Bergstrom, a strong, red-haired woman. As she helped her dying father, it became clear that she and not her two older brothers, truly understood how to make the farm succeed that he had labored so hard to establish in the hills of Nebraska. When he died, she took over its management. When her brothers wanted to sell the farm during the drought, she went to see the river land they wanted to move to, and returned to propose that they mortgage the farm to add to the lands, her faith being so strong. In one of the pivotal passages of the book, Cather writes of her:

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman (Cather, p. 44).

Under her love, the expanded farm prospers, she buys out her brothers who acquire their own land. With old Ivar, who the brothers want to commit, and farmworkers and young girls to help, the fields, orchards, and stock flourish. But she is growing older, alone. Her one male friend from childhood, Carl Linstrum, his parents having sold the farm to Alexandra, has gone off to seek his fortune, and yet never finds it, secretly struggling to live up to Alexandra’s accomplishments, little realizing that this was not what she wanted.

Sadly, Alexandra also fails to recognize the yearnings drawing together her friend Marie, trapped in an unhappy marriage and her beloved youngest brother Emil, for whom she hoped so much. She sends Emil to help Marie in her troubles, little suspecting the attraction she is helping to fuel. One wonders if she fails to see the desires in others that she had suppressed in herself for so long.

One of the other things Cather captures is the ethnic diversity, each with their own settlements-the Norwegians, the French, the Bohemians, and the intersections between them at festivals, churches and daily life. Each has stereotypes of the others but also friendships, like that between Emil and Amedee, or Alexandra and Marie. Slowly, these different migrants are brought together but the challenges of Nebraska’s upland prairies.

I was also taken by the many descriptions of the land–the paths they walked, the pond where Emil shot the ducks with Marie by his side (a scene pregnant with foreshadowing), the rainstorm that clarified Alexandra’s grief and resolve, and the white mulberry tree. Amid all this, and dominating the whole is the strong character of Alexandra whose love of the land, shrewdness of character, generosity of friendship, and ultimately, a forgiveness that transcends grief makes her one of the great characters of American literature.

Review: The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (first published in 1943).

Summary: Just released from a psychiatric hospital for the mercy killing of his wife, Arthur Rowe inadvertently gets caught up in a twisty espionage plot.

It is 1943, the middle of World War 2 in London, with nightly bombing raids and no one knowing if they will live to the next morning. Arthur Rowe lives quietly in a flat, reading and re-reading The Old Curiosity Shop. He’s been exempted from the war effort because he was recently released from a psychiatric facility where he had served a sentence of the mercy killing of his wife.

Inadvertently, he is caught up in an espionage affair, surviving poisoning, escaping another murder charge only to survive a bomb blast when a case, supposedly of books that he is carrying to a hotel rendezvous explodes. He loses his memory, narrowly escapes a sinister psychiatrist, and joins the effort to hunt down the espionage mastermind, the brother of a woman he has fallen in love with, Anna Hilfe. I’ve seen plenty of plot movement and narrow escapes in other Greene novels, but nothing like the madcap adventures of this novel, reminiscent more of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday than anything else I’ve read by Greene.

It begins at a charity fete where Rowe visits a fortune teller who mistakes him for one of the conspirators, that enables him to win a cake in which a role of microfilm has been hidden. He is poisoned, but survives, when he will not give up the cake. After working with a detective, he visits the fortune teller again, and when the lights go out, a man is murdered with a knife carried by Rowe. Knowing he could be charged with murder, he flees, ends up carrying a case of what he thinks are books to a hotel for a man he met at a book seller.

The case explodes, he survives but with the loss of his memory, recovering in a bucolic country psychiatric facility (again!) headed by a soothing but sinister doctor up to no good. He’s visited by Anna Hilfe, who works at the charity that ran the fete, who he’d met earlier and encountered just before the suitcase bomb exploded. He comes to love her, even though he does not remember the prior connection, nor the ways her brother Willi is involved in the espionage plot, ways that become clearer as memory returns and he joins the effort to uncover the ring and retrieve a crucial microfilm.

“The Ministry of Fear” formally is an espionage ring, but becomes more in Greene’s plot. It is the dull reality of the nightly existence of Londeners. For Rowe, it is the fear of being found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit while struggling to justify the one he did. Fear and distrust taints love as both Rowe and Anna know things of the other and of themselves that they dare not reveal. With the catastrophic losses of war and the gray world of espionage, one senses people anxiously clinging to illusions of normalcy in a world gone wrong, and living off balance as a result. It may well be Greene’s snapshot of his times–and a parable for our own.

Review: The Professor’s House

The Professor’s House, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (originally published in 1925).

Summary: The move to a new home, academic success and his daughter’s marriages, and a deceased former student and son-in-law, precipitate a crisis for Professor Godfrey St. Peter.

The first sign was when the Professor paid up the rent on his old house so that he could still use his spartan old study, furnished only with a table, a sofa with Tom Outland’s old blanket, a couple seamstress’s forms left by Augusta, the family seamstress, and an unreliable heater that required leaving a window open for safety’s sake. The lavish new home had plenty of room since his daughters had married. But this was the place where he wrote the multi-volume history, Spanish Adventures in North America, that was the cornerstone of his academic success and the awards that followed that made the new house that Lillian had always wanted possible. Up until then, any niceties had come from her inherited income.

St. Peter’s older daughter Rosamond had originally married a former student, Tom Outland, who died in the war, but not before leaving her a patent that her new husband, Louie Marcellus, has commercialized, with lavish profits that he uses to lavish favor on Rosamond and her family. The younger daughter, Kathleen, less vain and more sensitive has married a journalist. There is tension between the two, particularly as the Marcelluses take their parents on trips, including a proposed trip to Paris.

St. Peter decides not to go, pottering about in his old study, revising Tom Outland’s journals. The book takes a break at this point with Tom speaking in the first person about a magical season of discovering an ancient indigenous people’s village high up on a mesa in the Southwest, cataloging his discoveries. His partner stakes him the funds (gambling winnings) to visit Washington to recruit researchers to come, to no avail. He then returns, only to find his partner sold them out, resulting in their final alienation. Tom then migrates to the college where St. Peter is professor, works with a physics professor on his invention, graduating with a patent. Part three of the book returns to the professor, and a crisis in his life with which the book concludes.

The book is fraught with the tensions that are pulling at St. Peter’s life. There is the spartan life of the scholar (and of Tom on the mesa which St. Peter had visited) in contrast with the life of luxury that both Lillian and her elder daughter Rosamond craved, that St. Peter’s success and Marcellus’ business acumen made possible. There is the tension between the elder and younger daughter and their husbands, the younger of which, St. Peter trusts, despite, or perhaps because of his modest means. There is the growing coolness between Godfrey and Lillian as neither can embrace the life of the other. St. Peter’s stubborn hold on his study and his refusal to go to Paris, which he loves, is a kind of passive resistance after acceding to the life Lillian desires. Tom seems to represent something of an ideal that St. Peter had not had the courage to pursue.

The summer of the Paris vacation was a last respite before returning to his teaching and the comfortable life Lillian wanted (or perhaps the growing awareness of their estrangement). As their return approaches, he experiences a weariness for which the doctor can find no bodily cause, setting the stage for his final crisis.

The structure of the book seems disjointed, with the second part a separate narrative in which Tom Outland is the main character. The only thing I can think is that it explains St. Peter’s fixation with Tom by setting their lives in contrast. The question remains of how or whether St. Peter will resolve the tensions in his life, tensions such as all of us live with, tensions that can fray to the breaking or result in creative resolutions.

Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder with Foreword by Russell Banks, Afterword by Tappan Wilder. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015 (originally published in 1927).

Summary: A friar witnesses the collapse of a woven rope bridge with five people falling to their deaths and tries to discern some reason why, in God’s providence, each of them died.

It’s the unanswerable question we struggle with in every untimely death. We try to find some reason to explain why the death or deaths occurred, often some version of “it was God’s time,” or “they were too good for earth,” or that there was some sinful reason why they died. In the end we are left with uncertainty–none of these rationalizations satisfy or comfort and most explanations seem cruel or trite.

That is the premise of this Thornton Wilder story, which launched his literary career, winning him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and creating the opportunity for him to live a life of teaching and writing. Brother Juniper has just come into view of the woven rope bridge over a river gorge between Lima and Cuzco when the bridge collapses, sending five people on the bridge to their death. As a theologically oriented religious man, he sets himself the task to find evidence in their lives that would demonstrate that this was God’s plan for each person.

After the opening chapter, which lays out the premise of the story, the next three represent the account of six years of research on the part of Brother Juniper, talking to everyone who knew those who fell. The first concerns Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor, a difficult woman estranged from her daughter, who lives in Spain, and her companion Pepita, a young girl being groomed by Madre Maria de Pilar, to succeed her in the work of abbess of the orphanage where Pepita grew up. The two go on pilgrimage to a shrine so that Dona Maria can pray for her pregnant daughter. While she is praying, Pepita writes a letter to Madre Maria that Dona Maria sees, of how difficult life is with her. Pepita destroys the letter before Dona Maria confronts her, deciding it was not brave. They reconcile, Dona Maria writes a “brave” letter to her daughter, and it is on their return that they die in the collapse.

The next character is Esteban, twin brother of Manuel. The two grew up in the orphanage and became scribes, writing for, among others, Camilla Perichole, a famous and rather vain actress. Manuel dies of an infection, and Esteban, grief stricken despairs of life, attempting suicide, prevented by the captain who wants to take him to sea to restore him. Esteban wants to make a present of the pay advanced to him to Madre Maria de Pilar and dies on the bridge enroute to the orphanage.

The final two are Uncle Pio, who had mentored Camilla Perichole, helping her to achieve fame, and Perichole’s son Jaime. When small pox disfigures her, her career is ended. Uncle Pio sees her one night and she refuses to see him again but agrees to let him mentor her son. Uncle Pio and Jaime are on the way to Lima when the bridge collapses.

The final chapter describes the completion of Brother Juniper’s book in which he even tries formulas that he applies to each life, to no avail. This all ends badly for Juniper who is declared a heretic, punishable by death.

The account of their lives, in very formal language, brings no conclusion, just facts of people with their loves, longings, loneliness, petty, and noble acts. It’s simply, this is the story of their lives…and then they died on the bridge. The closest Wilder gets in the novel to making sense of it all is at the funeral in the famous, oft-quoted closing line spoken by Abbess Madre Maria de Pilar: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

I cannot decide whether this is a beautiful or a trite thought. I suspect some find comfort in keeping their dead alive in loving memory which connects them to the loved ones they’ve lost. I have those memories, particularly of father and mother and dear friends who have died, but also the apprehension of the yawning void that separates us that love may bridge in thought but not reality. I’m not sure we ever find “meaning” in the death of anyone, even if they die in some cause. I wonder instead, and this reflects my Christian convictions, if what we may talk about is hope, the belief that they, and we, will “rise in glory” after resting in peace. It doesn’t offer a “meaning” to death, which my faith tells me is the “last enemy” but it consoles in loss and grief.

Review: The Last Professional

The Last Professional, Ed Davis. Tijeras, NM: Artemesia Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A young man trying to find the tramp who assaulted him as an adolescent catches a freight and meets an old hobo running from a killer and the two form a friendship around the lure of riding the freights.

Lyndon works as a gifted programmer at a California tech firm in the early ’80’s. When an obnoxious boss attempts to sexually assault him, something snaps. He eludes the man, quits his job and hops a freight at the Roseville yard. It’s not the first time. The last was fifteen years ago as a twelve year old when “The Tramp” pulled him aboard the freight stopped behind his home as it started up. He’d seen and talked to him many times, a substitute for the father who had abandoned him. But this time was different–he was assaulted for two weeks. The author captures his ambivalence–someone who paid attention but forced himself upon him. He remembered his smell, and the distinctive, fist-shaped buckle he wore. Then he literally dumped him. But “The Tramp” never left him. And when he hops the train, he begins to wonder if he can find “The Tramp” and. . . .

Lyndon discovers he’s not alone. There’s an old hobo on the train–calls himself The Duke. Where Lyndon is trying to find someone, The Duke is running from someone. Someone from his past. He’d barely escaped him in the Colton jungle (the encampment of hobos), when Short Arm left another man dead. He was there when Short arm that name–a arm lost in a train accident–and The Duke left him for dead. Short Arm doesn’t leave anyone alive who crosses him, including two of The Duke’s friends who lie about The Duke’s whereabouts. Their paths crisscross throughout the book and The Duke knows Short Arm will find him. It’s only a matter of time

Lyndon (now nicknamed “Frisco Lyndy”) and The Duke travel, The Duke orienting him to the life of a hobo. He’s a “Profesh,” one of the last of a breed, with a code of his own and a knowledge of every yard, jungle, and good place to eat cheaply in the country. He schools Lyndon on eluding the “bulls,” the yard security, and the ins and outs of riding every kind of car and how to avoid getting killed. More than that, they just talk about life, and the draw of the freights. The Duke tells him, “These freights let you ride. They don’t let you go.”

“These freights let you ride. They don’t let you go.”

Ed Davis, The Last Professional

They talk about the man Lyndon is trying to find and the man The Duke is running from. The belt buckle identifies The Tramp as a Johnson, a group of outlaw hobos that one has to kill someone to be part of. Short Arm is also a Johnson. The Duke, partly out of protectiveness, suggests that the two couldn’t be the same person. Short Arm is the last of the Johnson’s. But Lyndon wonders. And at any rate, he won’t abandon The Duke. The Duke is the only man who hasn’t abandoned or hurt him.

In some ways, this is the railroad equivalent of Kerouac’s On The Road. The two get into scrapes and adventures as they cross the country. What separates it from Kerouac is two things. One is the friendship that forms between these two men, and the other is that Davis captures for us the hobo’s life. The narrative is broken up with numbered “Tracks” (e.g. Track #10) that are conversations on various subjects from our illusions of safety to sex to death.

Ed Davis has served up a story that builds to a powerful ending, an unusual friendship between a younger and older man, and a description of a life that is mostly in the historical past (though this article suggests there are still a few riding the rails). The illustrations by Colin Elgie both fit and created the images formed by the story in my head. I had a tough time putting it down.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Memory of Old Jack

The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1999 (Originally published 1974).

Summary: Old Jack Beechum, the oldest of the Port William membership, spends a September day remembering his life.

This book resonated powerfully with me. It brought to mind my father’s last years after my mother passed. His short term memory was failing even as he grew more frail. Mostly he spent his days remembering what he could, the earlier days of his life, summing up in a sense what his life had meant. From our conversations, these were grace-filled memories, and there was about him a profound sense of thanksgiving. He was already at peace about his life well before we laid him to rest.

As the title of this work suggests, this is also an account of remembering and summing up a life. On one hand, it is a narrative of a single sunny day in September. It is also a day of remembering the most significant events in his life. Early morning, old Jack Beechum stands on the hotel porch where he now lives, listening to the sounds of the men going about their chores and a day of tobacco harvesting. He hears Mat Feltner, a man in his sixties, an anchor of the community, and recalls him as a boy with his father Ben as he hitches up his new mule team. He recalls Ben Feltner, the loan Ben had fronted him, and the mentor he had been in the care of his land when he was bereft of his own parents and starting out.

His wife Ruth occupies many of his memories. Her beauty which led him to pursue her. Her ambitions, which led him both into debt, and a falling out with the tenant of an adjacent farm he bought, Will Wells. Ruth wanted him to be a prosperous landowner with many others working for him. He wanted to care for and lovingly restore the land he had, that his father had so neglected.

He remembers the crucible through which he went. Selling the adjacent farm at a loss, Ruth’s increasing estrangement, and the fire in his barn and more loss and debt, and the years of extra work to own his land free and clear. He goes through a kind of death returning from a fruitless errand for Ruth to get caught in a flood, barely surviving with his team, cutting loose his wagon.

After Ruth’s daughter Clara was born, Ruth insisted they sleep apart. What followed was an affair with the doctor’s widow, Rose McInnis, each meeting the hunger in the other. There came the day when a question from Ruth revealed she knew and he knew “the wound he had given her.” Shortly after, Jack returns from a trip to learn Rose had perished in a fire. All he has left is his land, on which at 48, he had paid off the mortgage–and a renewed sense of his own life:

That his life was renewed, that he had been driven down to the bedrock of his own place in the world, and his own truth and had stood again, that a profound peace and trust had come to him out of his suffering and his solitude, and that this peace would abide with him to the end of his days–all this he knew in the quiet of his heart and kept to himself.

He had come through his own valley of the shadow of death. Eventually there is one with whom he shares what he has learned–Mat Feltner, now what he once was to Mat’s father Ben. Pointing to Mat’s land, he says, “That’s all you’ve got, Mat. It’s your only choice. It’s all you can have; whatever you try to gain somewhere else, you’ll lose here.”

Sadly, his own daughter will not understand what Mat and the circle around him–Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Burley Coulter, and the tenant who cares for his farm, Elton Penn–understand. Clara followed her mother’s ways, marrying a banker, who refused an opportunity to buy an adjacent farm, that one day could be joined to Jack’s own. Clara even took dying Ruth, whose last words to Jack are “Bless you, Jack, good-by.” Jack continues as long as he can alone until he moves into the hotel.

Just before dinner on that September day, young Andy Catlett stops by to say good-bye. Andy is headed off to college, yet loves the land as he does. There is a fitting closure here, of love and fealty on Andy’s part, of blessing of the young man. It seems each knows they will not see the other again.

There is exquisite writing throughout here, and none more than in the chapter “Return.” Everything Berry writes reflects love of land, of place, of animals well-cared for, and a community that shares these values. In this work, these become the source of renewal for Old Jack, a kind of “pearl of great price.” The theme of mentors, from one generation to the next, runs through this work. There is a company of men who not only work alongside and impart wisdom, but who affirm one another’s worth and dignity. It is striking how Mat honors Old Jack when he is long past being any “use” even as Jack had honored him. Finally there is the forging of character in Jack, from the proud young man who marries a kind of “trophy” wife only to discover that he cannot live up to her expectations, to the humbled man, reckoning with all his errors, doing what he can to make amends, even with Ruth, and in the process not only becomes himself, but a model to others.

Berry reminds us that unless death comes suddenly, there will come the time of summing up, of remembering. What will we remember, and will we have found the peace that abides to the end of our days? He reminds me that it is never too soon to address oneself to these questions.