Review: The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny, seek to come to terms with past losses of parents, and their childhood home, a striking three-story home built by a Dutch couple.

This story, it seems to me is about the longings of people who care for each other, often at variance with each other, resulting in wounds of estrangement, with which we may spend a lifetime trying to come to terms. So it is with siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, born seven years apart. Their father, an aspiring real-estate tycoon has bought an extravagant house in an old Dutch neighborhood of Philadelphia, once owned by the Van Hoebeek’s, whose forbidding portraits and presence fill the house. Danny, who has never known anything else is the narrator of this account. Conroy’s wife Elna, who nearly became a nun, cannot come to terms with a place so extravagant. Her absences become longer until she leaves permanently, devoting herself to a life helping the poor, first in India and later, at various places in the United States, including New York’s Bowery.

Cyril’s ambitions, represented in his growing portfolio of properties leaves him vulnerable to the longings of Andrea, who becomes his second wife, bringing her two daughters. She has no problem seeing the house as hers. She relegates Maeve to a third floor bedroom so her daughter Norma can have her room. When Cyril, making repairs on one of his buildings, drops dead of a heart attack, Andrea expels Danny from the house, forcing him to live with Maeve. Soon they learn they have been cut out of their father’s company and assets apart from an educational trust for Danny and Andrea’s two girls.

Maeve already has a job as chief financial officer for a frozen vegetable concern and uses acumen to look after her brother, using the trust first to send him to Columbia, and then through medical school. She pours her life out for Danny, who strikes me as spoiled and self-absorbed, at times, to the detriment of her own health as a diabetic. It seems her longing is to be needed. Yet the question of what Danny wanted wasn’t asked. Finally after his medical training, he pursues what he wants–to be like the father he had followed around collecting rents and making repairs as a boy. That longing clashes with his wife, Celeste who thought she was marrying a doctor, anticipating the life of a doctor’s wife.

Meanwhile, Maeve and Danny continue to wrestle with the father and mother they lost, symbolized by the Dutch House. Repeatedly, they sit together, parked across the street wondering why their mother had left, why their father had so compromised their interests, and what had become of their evil stepmother. They try to understand their past and its hold on their lives. It turns out that they end up being versions of the parents they had lost.

I’ve often wrestled with what I’ve felt to be the unsatisfying endings of many of Patchett’s books. For one, I felt that Patchett wrote an ending I found to be satisfying. Not everyone lives happily ever after but there are real resolutions, real reconciliations. Danny, as narrator, grows in a trajectory of maturity and character. I’ll leave you to discover how Patchett accomplishes this. Like her other novels, she explores the unique ways in which families can be unhappy. In the resolution of this one, I found it satisfying in the authentic growth of the characters. I leave to you to discover how she does this and what you think.

Review: With or Without Me

With or Without Me, Esther Marie Magnis (Translated by Alta L. Price). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A memoir of losing a father to cancer and the loss of faith that came when earnest, believing prayers went unanswered, and the slow journey back.

Esther’s father announced the news as Christmas approached. He had cancer and the doctors said it was too advanced for them to do anything. He had weeks to a few months to live. Esther had grown up in a church-going family in Germany. Her first prayer was, “I want to keep dad.” She, her brother, and sister joined in attic prayer meetings. Her father fought back and for a short while, the cancer relented and it seemed their prayers were being answered. And then it came roaring back. And for a time, she prayed even more, believing they would travel to Spain as a family. But dad died. And God died to Esther.

The middle part of this book is hard reading, as Esther retells the rawness of her grief, her anger at the God who did not act, who was silent. She skips school, drinks, and embraces all the skepticism of those around her about God and truth. This section is full of expletives, many directed toward God. She engages in internal debates with “the clown” and “the snitch” representing skepticism about God and truth and even one’s own existence. Finally she hits rock bottom during a forest party a year after her father died on Easter weekend and declares, “I don’t care.”

Silence. God is silent, and yet present. She realizes that “God subverts silence. There must be a power there we do not understand.” Singing a lullaby to her grandmother who suffers from dementia, she sings the words “He has not forgotten thee” and remembers how she heard it as a child–“Godandthee.’ She questions the certitude of those who confidently assert “there is no truth.” How can they be so confident, then of the truth of this statement? Slowly she gropes her way back to faith, just in time for her brother, who will face his own existential crisis.

This is a powerful memoir. No easy answers. Hard painful realities of life. Unvarnished and raw at times. Believing can be challenging. But for the author, not believing is even harder. In the end, she faced the reality that despite all the hard stuff, at the bottom of reality, “God is.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

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.”


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — What We Still Have


Stone Bridge on Lake Glacier (c)2015, Robert C Trube

How good it was. How much we’ve lost. These two phrases seem to capture the gist of so many of the online conversations I’ve had with present and former Youngstowners since starting this series of posts.

On the one hand, so many of us, especially those of us who grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, share these incredibly rich memories of working class Youngstown ranging from good jobs to healthy neighborhoods to close extended families to a surprisingly rich cultural life ranging from ethnic festivals to classical concerts, from baseball and bowling leagues to art shows at the Butler.

On the other hand, even with all the efforts to create a “new” Youngstown, we live with a communal grief for what has been lost–from the skies aglow with steel-making, to summers at Idora Park, to the sadness when we visit the neighborhoods of our youth to find an abandoned house or vacant lot where we once lived. It is not a simple thing to occupy, let alone maintain all that housing stock when you’ve lost 100,000 of your people.

I could go on but what I would rather focus on is what we still have, whether we are living in Youngstown or are part of the “Youngstown Diaspora.” What I’ve discovered as I’ve written and interacted and reflected is that having grown up in Youngstown, there are things we carry with us. You may take us out of Youngstown. You can’t take Youngstown out of us.

  • For one thing, we know good food. If nothing else, our mission to the world ought to be one of educating people about what makes a good pizza! It has been a delight to meet Bobbi Ennett Allen and see the great work she and her friends have done in Recipes of Youngstown to preserve so many of those family recipes and good ethnic dishes we grew up with. [2/8/15 update: There is now a second Recipes of Youngstown that will be coming out soon to benefit the Mahoning Valley Historical Society that may be pre-ordered at their website.]
  • There are values we grew up with that are worth preserving and passing along to our families and others. Youngstowners are no-nonsense, hard-working, family-oriented, and resilient. Youngstowners do not tolerate those who whine, indulge in self-pity, or self-adulation. We would say they are “full of it” (or something more earthy).
  • Not all our memories are nostalgia. We know what makes a good place. We know what the “new urbanists” are only just discovering–that a good place has sidewalks, home owners, and a diversity of businesses and services in walking distance. I’ve had a chance to talk to some working in the Idora Park area to renew the neighborhoods there and they get this–and that good places are not 90 day wonders but take years of hard work.
  • We cherish beauty. Somehow, we’ve managed to preserve and enhance Mill Creek Park and we return there whenever we visit. We’ve always supported the fine and performing arts. The gritty world of manufacturing taught us that it was not enough just to make things–we craved things of beauty. The world still needs people with this vision.
  • We are people who know how to celebrate. I can’t think of any place where the weddings are more fun than in Youngstown. Nobody else (except some Pittsburgh folk who probably got it from us) even knows what a cookie table is let alone what a good one looks like! We didn’t think all of life is a party. Much of it was hard, so when there was a wedding, or even a wake, you celebrated. When there was a holiday, you cooked and baked like crazy and you celebrated.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There is so much we carry within us that has not been lost. But it can be if we keep it within because none of us lives forever. The best of our heritage can live on if we share it with our children, and bring our best into our communities, our places of worship, and our work.

Writing this series has been a fun project with a serious purpose. The experiences and memories that we’ve shared and enjoyed together are things that have shaped us. I think much of that is profoundly good–good to remember if we are seeking the peace and prosperity of Youngstown–and good to be mindful of and draw upon wherever we find ourselves.

Read all the posts in the Growing Up in Youngstown Series by clicking the “On Youngstown” category link either at the top of this page or in the left column of my home page.

Good Grief!

Good grief sounds like an oxymoron. Only a disturbed person relishes loss. Grieving, whether we face the loss of a person, a job we love, a situation in life or a diminishment of our own capacities, comes with a number of emotions, none of which are pleasant–sadness, depression, anger, confusion and more. Yet Rudy’s message on Sunday proposed that we can grieve well. Is this really possible?

Before we get to that question, I want to acknowledge that Rudy helped me see something more clearly than I had before. It was that because we were created originally to live eternally and not die, we often plan and live for permanence and not loss. We think of being best friends forever, of putting down lasting roots somewhere, of things always being the way they are. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

A good friend observed to me that the first half of life is about acquisition and achievement whereas the second half is about loss. Somewhere along the way, we confront the impermanence of life and that “the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart.” And the challenging question we face is whether the grief of loss is just the gateway to a despairing view of life. Perhaps this is why we try to assuage grief and rush the process because to face it honestly means facing the hardest questions about life.

As Rudy talked about, it all comes back to Jesus and our resurrection hope in him. If Jesus truly came back to life, there is indeed a basis for hoping against hope that there is something beyond the ultimate of all losses–the death of others and our own death. Trusting in his promise, we can face the hardest realities of loss and name them and then realize that Jesus and not loss or death has had the last word. There is a life and a restoration of creation in which we encounter the realization of all our hopes–not only of life everlasting, but of real relationship with those in the Lord we have lost and real work that bears lasting fruit in a creation that is renewed.

How does this help us grieve well? It enables us to have the courage to name our grief honestly with all the emotion that comes with it.  It enables us to allow the journey of grief to take its time with us rather than feeling we must manufacture “all better” feelings when that’s not true. And it enables us to lean into the comfort of God’s promise even when we don’t feel God’s presence.

Loss really doesn’t seem the way life is supposed to be which makes it so hard. The promise of the gospel doesn’t mean an escape from grief but rather that grief needn’t be suppressed nor end in despair–there is hope and light on the other side of the dark night that gives us courage to walk in the valley of the shadow of death and loss.

This post also appears at Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.