The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.

Inspiration: Susan Carol McCarthy guest post

Last week I wrote about my own memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and reviewed a book just published just this week, A Place We Knew Well. Well, today I’m happy to share with you a guest post by the author of that novel, Susan Carol McCarthy. Ms McCarthy share some of her memories of that time in our history and also writes about a writer’s inspiration. As a special bonus, enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway at the bottom of the side bar and maybe you’ll win one of five copies of A Place We Knew Well. 


 

Where do books come from? I can’t speak for anyone else but, I know for sure, each of my three books grew out of very specific, very personal life events. Inspiration for my first book, LAY THAT TRUMPET IN OUR HANDS, arrived in a manila envelope containing clippings from The Orlando Sentinel, about a series of shocking race crimes that occurred in my central Florida hometown the year I was born, and an 8-page letter from my father saying, “Everyone in town knew the local KKK was involved, but no one was willing to do anything about it. I want you to hear, from the horse’s mouth, what I did and why.” My second book, TRUE FIRES, grew out of the first, when I discovered, with my father’s help, the one time that the powerful racist sheriff in the county north of ours, a minor character in TRUMPET, was forced, by strong women in his community, to do the right thing. It may have been the only time during his 28-year reign that the love of power capitulated to the power of love. I was genuinely inspired and privileged to tell that story.

My third and newest book, A PLACE WE KNEW WELL, was, in all seriousness, a niPlaceWeKnewWell_eCards1ghtmare—a recurring nightmare which I began to have soon after the events of September 11, 2001. In that dream, I was desperately afraid and powerless because the end of the world was at hand; but oddly, I was back in Florida with my parents and only ten/eleven years old. It took me awhile to realize that my subconscious had somehow melded my childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the attack on the Twin Towers. Nearly four decades apart, my response to 9/1
1—shock and outrage, anxiety and fear—sent me back to a place that I, and anyone who was in Florida in late October 1962, knew all too well. So many books have been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis from the political, military, and historians’ perspective. My inspiration was to capture what it was like to be an ordinary family trapped in the swath of that extraordinary, uniquely terrifying time. This book began as a way of setting down my own vivid childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it would never have been finished without the generosity of so many others, whose shared recollections helped me grasp the larger, communal story. I’m truly grateful to them for their insights; and to you, kind reader, for your interest in this seminal time. ~ Susan McCarthy

Dreaming of Castro: A Place We Knew Well (review)

A Place We Knew Well (NetGalley)
Susan Carol McCarthy
Bantam Books/Random House
release date: September 29

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a five-year-old. Of course, I knew nothing about it really. There’s a memory of my mom and dad sitting in the living room with a neighbor couple, and I heard “There’s nothing we can do” (My dad was only a few years back from being PlaceWeKnewWell_eCards1stationed on the USS Bushnell, a submarine tender in the Caribbean) and “I have some water jugs in the basement” (my mom, the consummate planner). Kindergartners know little about the world of negotiation and detente and nuclear annihilation. But kids do dream.

In my dream, our little white duplex at the end of the dirt road was swarming with Castros—they’re at the windows trying to get in, they’re walking around the living room, they’re sitting at the kitchen table. Maybe ten of them. They force my mom sit at the table and refuse to let her get up, even when my dad starts knocking on the back door. And that’s as far as it goes (or as much as I remember), but dreamt it over and over for years.

So somewhere in my little brain, I understood that “the Castros” wanted my house.

Susan McCarthy explores that period in her new novel A Place We Knew Well. Wes Avery, owner of a Big Chief gas station near Orlando, notices more than the usual jet flyovers from the Strategic Air Command base nearby: bombers, a Stratotanker, fighters, even, it was rumored, the new U-2 spy plane. The locals say the U.S. is “getting’ ready to kick out Castro”. Wes’s wife Sarah is busy preparing the Women’s Club Civil Defense Committee’s “first-ever Family Survival and Fallout Shelter Show” in just a few days, showcasing a bomb shelter stocked with the supplies every family needs to “be prepared”. If ever a euphemism fell short, that one did.

But as President Kennedy prepares to speak about the international crisis, other storms are brewing. Sarah, whose sights are set on climbing back up the social ladder she descended after marrying down, struggles with tautly stretched nerves even without the stress of nuclear war. Miscarriages, a recent hysterectomy, family secrets—all weigh on her heavily and stretch that wire even tighter, so that she comes to rely on pills to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to keep going. (The sixties were clearly a time when we believed pharmaceuticals could cure all ills.)

Meanwhile, their daughter, high school senior Charlotte Avery, just wants Homecoming to go off without the hitch of nuclear destruction. Big worries for a country of kids who should be enjoying that carefree childhood we all believe in. Mythical maybe, but still. Charlotte dreams of her dress, a dreamy date, the ride in the parade—and wonders if anyone would still be alive by then.

McCarthy captures a tense period in American history and personalizes it with the Averys, right down to the bologna and cheese sandwiches, frosty glass bottles of cola, and that fairy tale naiveté that we’d never, as a nation, reclaim.

It’s a world I don’t completely remember, but A Place We Knew Well made me think I did.

As a special bonus, join me back at This Is My Symphony next week, Wednesday September 30, when writer Susan McCarthy shares her personal memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis–her inspiration for the novel.

Destination: Little House In the Big Woods, Part 2

@wikipedia.org
@wikipedia.org

While my reason for visiting Pepin was really to check off a Little House site from my bucket list, I was charmed by the village itself and  the surrounding area. Driving in on US 61, I turned onto the Great River Road and drove alongside the bluffs, overlooking the Upper Mississippi. Known as the Driftless Area, this region escaped the glaciers of the last ice age and is characterized by high wooded bluffs, deep river valleys, and, of course, the mighty Mississippi. I had no idea.

@wikimedia.org
@wikimedia.org

Pepin itself was already a place for settlers to trade during the nineteenth century. Remember when Pa tramped off seven miles into town one day from the Ingalls’ house in the Big Woods? That town was Pepin.  Settlers who trapped all winter sold their pelts during the early months of spring, and the river gave traders a route for selling those furs. The surrounding countryside, once those Big Woods, is now farmland.

Downtown PepinToday Pepin itself seems to be centered on the Laura attractions and Lake Pepin. The marina was hopping the day I arrived, and it looked like every slip was taken. Brochures for sailing and kayaking trips, as well as guided fishing expeditions were stacked at every cash register, it seemed, and I’m guessing the outdoor adventure industry is a lot more lucrative than the Laura connection. Outside of the harbor area (which was “prettified” nicely), Pepin resembled most other small towns (pop. 837) in rural America.

I stayed at A Summer Place Inn on Main Street just two blocks up from the lake. Owner Nancy greeted me at the door and took me to my room. Nancy was the perfect B&B owner for my tastes: she gave me a suggestion for dinner and directions to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (just a block and a half away), told me what time coffee and pastries would be set out in the mornA Summer Place Inning, and otherwise left me on my own. The room was cozy, clean, and decorated in pretty typical (but tasteful) B&B fashion. (Check out Ruth’s Room on A Summer Place’s website for a photo.) The cottage garden around the lawn of A Summer Place was sweet as sweet could be—bordered, of course (!), by a white pIMG_2112icket fence.

Nancy’s dinner suggestion was Harbor View Café and I’d go back in a New York Wisconsin minute. No menus, just their famous chalkboard! I started with a craft beer (spilled a bit because my hubby wasn’t there to pour it correctly for me), and ordered black bean fritters over a warm kale salad. It was served with a timbale of rice which was delicious, but really not needed. Dessert was the chocolate buttercream pie I mentioned here.

This trip was quickly thrown together, but I’d love to return to Wisconsin and take in more along the gorgeous Mississippi—talk about God’s country.

Next time: maybe kayaking?!

Circling the sun: review

Circling the Sun (NetGalley)
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books

There was a time when I thought I was born in the wrong time and place–a time when I dreamed I was meant to stand on the wide savanna scanning the horizon, when I thought I might have my own antelope calf as a pet and sit on the veranda of a house that nestled at the foot of a mountain.

I read Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa (and saw the movie, too, but it wasn’t nearly so good) and all of Elsbeth Huxley’s books (the best being The Flame Trees of Thika and this time the Masterpiece Theater production was nearly as good!), and Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The sad thing is I read them all in a period of several months and so keeping the women and their experiences separate is nearly impossible these thirty years later. Instead, I have colorful blur of colonial Kenya in my mind’s eye.

Writer Paula McLain, best known for The Paris Wife, writes about the life of Beryl Markham, who, in her eighties, Circling the sunpublished her autobiography–that West With the Night I read so many years ago. Because of my reading muddle, the only thing I could remember about Markham was her accomplishment as an aviator—but Circling the Sun gives us much more than that.

Beryl Clutterbuck had a childhood marked by a sort of wild freedom that we really can’t relate to today. Her father moved the family from England to Kenya to farm and train horses. But Beryl’s mother couldn’t take the rough life and she left the family and returned to England before Beryl was six. After that, her father pretty much left Beryl to her own devices. She had a roof over her head, food in her belly, plenty of native friends to play with, animals galore, and at least one neighbor, Lady D, who tried to mother her as best she could. Beryl was Lakwet, “a very little girl”, living in wild and wonderful Africa.

All that changed when Beryl was nearly twelve and an evil step-mother (of sorts) entered the picture. Mrs. Orchardson (first introduced as the new housekeeper) expected Beryl to wear shoes and take lessons. No more killing snakes or hunting warthogs. English clothes, not her Kenyan shuka.  Beryl is finally packed off to a girl’s school in Nairobi for a little bit of book learning and (hopefully) a lot of taming.

When Beryl turned fifteen, her father lost their beloved ranch Green Hills. She made a disastrous marriage and, in order to deal with the fall out of that, began her journey towards independence: training to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya.

While Beryl succeeded in her professional life, her personal life was another story—hearth and home would not come easy for her. There was that first marriage. An affair or two. An abortion. Another marriage. A son. A rumored affair with royalty. And all the while her greatest love was just out of reach. McLain gives the impression that colonial Africa was very much a place where staid English men and women could throw off the strictures of polite society and live and love more freely–but where a double standard was still in place when it came to looking away from the “indiscretions” of women.

For me, the novel went on too long in those years between Beryl’s early success as a horse trainer and her life as an aviator, which, surprisingly, filled little of the book.

But I enjoyed Circling the Sun in a special way since it gave me a peek into a world I had once loved so much.