The Wild Truth (review)

The Wild Truth
Carine McCandless
HarperOne

Like so many readers around the world, I was spellbound by Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild which told the story of Chris McCandless’s the wild truthjourney of self-discovery and untimely death in the Alaskan wilderness; Sean Penn’s film by the same name was a powerful cinematic version of Chris’s story. Each year several of my students choose to read the book for an end-of-the-year book talk and they struggle, as I did, with the question–was Chris’s experience worth the price he paid?

Today pilgrims travel to bus 142 in Alaska to pay homage to a young man whose life has, perhaps, grown to mythical proporations. There are websites dedicated to Chris’s memory and others debunking the mystery of his death. Krakauer himself has returned to the story of McCandless for both Outside Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as appearing on Oprah. 

A year ago I read that Chris’s sister Carine had written a book and my interest in his story was piqued again. Carine’s book The Wild Truth is a brutally honest telling of the family life he endured growing up. I almost put the book down after the first chapter as Carine revisited the house where she and Chris grew up and experienced what could only be called flashbacks of those days. For those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse, this might be a story that re-opens old wounds.

On the surface, life was picture perfect in the McCandless household. They had it all: a beautifully decorated home, a successful engineering business, nice cars, better clothes. The family’s photo graced the membership wall of the Methodist church they attended each Sunday. But in reality, Walt McCandless was a brutal authoritarian who abused his wife and children. Billie was by turns his greatest defender or his archenemy. They both drank too much. Walt was, for all intents and purposes, a bigamist who for a period of several years kept a house with his first wife Marcia and their six children, and only a few miles away, another house for his life with Billie, Chris, and Carine. The children from both relationships often visited and stayed over at the other home. Both Walt and Billie lied, manipulated the truth, and did everything in their power to invalidate their children’s understanding of their dysfunctional family life–even into adulthood.

What might make a younger child fearful and anxious often makes an adolescent or young adult rebel against or sever toxic relationships–which is exactly, Carine tells us, what Chris’s journey was meant to do. Although her heart was broken at the loss of her brother, Carine takes comfort in knowing Chris died happy and at peace–something that eluded him in life.

Much of the book is less about Chris than it is about Carine McCandless, who is herself a fascinating woman. While she relates her experience growing up with Chris, the book is largely focused on her own coming to terms with her parents’ behavior. It’s not a pretty story and there’s no fairy tale ending, at least in the traditional sense.

But Carine McCandless is a woman of indomitable spirit whose example gives hope to others that, in the end, a life of integrity and honesty will win out over deceit–and that maybe love really can conquer all.

The Man In the Window (review)

The Man In the Window
Jon Cohen
Amazon Encore

Our first glimpse of Louis Malone is him sitting at the top of the stairs listening as his mother Gracie insists to the funeral director that her recently deceased husband Atlas be buried in his flannel workshirt, courduroys, and Hushpuppies. (The final score was Gracie: 1, Rose Funeral Home: 0, by the way.) And upstairs still, Louis watches the procession of casseroles and baked goods droppped off at the front door by friends and neighbors sympathizing with the newly widowed Gracie and even (maybe, just maybe) hoping to get a glimpse of Louis as well.

Now thirty-two, Louis has not been seen in Waverly in the sixteen years since the accident that left him horribly disfigured. He has watched the seasons meMan in the windowlt into years from the upstairs windows of his parents home, only sometimes creeping out in the dark of night to touch a spot in the yard he had only seen from two stories up.

And now, face muffled in his trademark purple scarf with Pirate’s ball cap pulled low, Louis rides in the limo to the funeral home, waits until the service ends, and then watches the graveside service from the safety of the back seat. As the service wraps up, a woman taps on the window. She tells Louis there are “worse things than death”–and she’s not the least bit nonplussed to be talking to a man covered head-to-toe save for his eyes. She’s a nurse, she tells Louis, on her way to the hospital and thought the funeral might have been one of her patients.

That nurse, Iris Shula, was horrible in her own way: overweight, abnormally short, and (even Iris herself would admit) just plain ugly. Iris works in critical care and not much surprises her. Not a blood splatter shaped like a perfect Valentine heart. Not even the dying Tube Man who every so often speaks one impossible word at a time: The. Man. In. The. Window. Is. Loose.

And then the worlds of these two misfits begin to collide. Iris’s elderly widowed father Arnie crosses paths with Atlas’s funeral procession; Louis falls from a window and meets Iris in the emergency room; Arnie, lost and confused, enters Louis’s home one night and is befriended by Gracie.

And then Iris, drawn to Louis who inexplicably touches her heart, reaches out to him–the unloved to the unlovable–and he reaches back.

This is a world beautifully conceived by writer Jon Cohen–where a hardware store can fix all of life’s ills, where the comatose offer up talismans, where falling two stories is really an ascent.

I read the last paragraph at least five times. You should too.

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.

Still a bully: This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (review)

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance (NetGalley)
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books

Harriet Chance sits in Father Mullinix’s study. Her husband Bernard, dead for two years, has been showing up unannounced: leaving his slippers next to hers, setting out a can of WD-40 so she could Harriet Chancesilence a hinge, showing up unannounced at the grocery store complaining.

What’s a widow to do when her dead husband still isn’t silent, even from the grave? What kind of a husband does this, anyway? A bully, that’s who. Bernard was–apparently still is–a bully.

And for his part, Bernard Chance is soundly taken to task by heaven’s chief transitional officer for intruding in her affairs.  Apparently, it was made very clear during orientation (and it’s repeated in the manual in Section One) that Candidates are not to return under any circumstances. Or else. Bernard’s motives seem to be pure–he’s just out to spare Harriet from learning things that will hurt her.

Father is concerned. Her son Skip (a successful businessman–or is he?) is concerned. Even daughter Caroline, an alcoholic who has given her parents a pretty wide berth since her recovery, is concerned.

And then there’s the matter of the cruise. Harriet recieved a call from the Nitterhouse Foundation. Seems that Bernard had bid and won a gift basket at a silent auction, but never picked it up. His cruise to Alaska would expire in a matter of months–would Mrs. Chance please come redeem her gift soon?

Quick as you can settle into a game of shuffleboard on the atrium deck, Harriet is off to Alaska. By herself because best friend Mildred Honeycutt has ditched her. And sent that AA daughter of Harriet’s (Surprise, Mom!) instead.

The book’s blurb sounded madcap. What’s not to like about a visiting ghost-husband who’s still a grumpy gus? How can I not be charmed by an unexpected (and quite lavish) mother-daughter getaway? Harriet mu st be a sweet old lady finally getting hers.

Except that life isn’t really all sweetness and light, now, is it?

Author Jonathon Evison peels off the layers of Harriet’s solidly built world slowly and painfully. There’s that first “incident” with Charlie Fitzsimmons on the boat when she was nine. Caroline’s palpable struggle to stay sober. Harriet’s own drinking. The devasting story of Bernard’s last days. His abuse bullying. And the awful truth about the betrayal of her very best friend.

For some reason I was pleasantly surprised that the novel I chose for a bit of light reading turned out to be far heavier than I sometimes wanted. This Is Your Life Harriet Chance was by turns raw and tender, whimsical and nostalgic.

Cheers to 80 years!

My mom turned 80 last week.

mom's bash
The gang’s all here
Team Elaine
Pedal Power

Her life’s story is hers to tell, but trust me when I say it hasn’t been all sweet tea and cupcakes. Growing up in miserable poverty in Cleveland, she scraped and saved and fought for the life she has now–one, I’m guessing, she never thought she’d realize. Especially since halfway through her life she found herself needing to start all over again after a devastating loss. Mom is generous to a fault and has never stopped giving, even when she had nothing to give. She is the proverbial church lady (and I mean that in a good way) and her faith touches everything she does.

Mom and friend Sue outside our bar stop. Every 80-year-old loves a good wall o' skulls, right?!
Mom and friend Sue outside our bar stop. Every 80-year-old loves a good wall o’ skulls, right?!

So my brother and I decided to celebrate the big 8-0 in style. We got all of the grands and signficant others together for a pedal around town on the Great Lakes Pub Cruiser. No, we didn’t bar hop–took the “easy route” (a bit of a euphemism for those of us over fifty!) that stopped only once for a libation and then another stop for shopping at our city’s beautiful Downtown Market.

Mom was decked out in style from her birthday tiara to her sash and beads. Perched on the back no-pedal bench, this Queen for the Day perfected her Miss America wave as cars honked and waved back. Music blasting over the sound system, we sang along. You are my sunshine. Roll out the barrel. Sweet Caroline.

Team Elainemom's bash2At our first bar stop, Mom played the arcade video game Street Fighter with her oldest grandson and apparently disemboweled his character. She played pool with the boys and my niece–and made a pretty sweet shot or two. The two little great-grands joined us for dinner at a restaurant we love. She laughed, smiled, beamed, and got hugs from total strangers.

I often think about what’s ahead for me as I age, especially when, after I turned 50, I realized my time here is over halfway spent. I worry and fret about money, mistakes I’ve made, dreams that are dashed. On each of my birthdays now, Mom tells me I’m “catching up”.

I should be so lucky.