Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

A Review of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Regardless of where we think we fall on the continuum of civility, one thing is certain, we can’t assume that we understand others automatically or that they understand us. In the places where we cross paths with strangers, faulty perceptions and skewed conclusions are ever-present. Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies does a brilliant job of playing out this conundrum in the experience of immigration.

The author considers himself authentically American, a child born in the United States and a man shaped in its culture. But he is also an immigrant son, and that allows him to see a complication in American identity. In the words of one of his characters Akhtar says, “The thing I never got used to here was not really understanding what people are thinking. Everybody coming from so many different places, so many different experiences, everybody looking at the same things in completely different ways.” We are a nation of people whose family trees have been transplanted. Our histories have been interrupted, and we often are confused about where we fit in. Reflecting this, Akhtar challenges the idea of the melting pot. As an alternative, he borrows an idea from chemistry and he asserts that the country is a “buffer solution – which keep things together but always separated. That’s what this country is. A buffer solution.”

Akhtar’s deft storytelling in Homeland Elegies streams together the story of a father, born in Pakistan and making his way in the United States, and a son born and raised in the United States, but still puzzled about his connection to another place where there are people and habits that resonate deeply with his own primordial sense of “family.” The father in Akhtar’s story, a physician lured by the dream of being both a healer and an entrepreneur, finds both boom and bust in his fearless pursuit of the American Dream. He takes his chances, and the gamble undoes him.

The son in Akhtar’s story is his father’s opposite. He grows up in the United States, culturally nurtured on the advice to follow your own dreams. He is determined to be a writer, does well in school, and immerses himself in creative ventures, which for a time require that he live on loans and handouts from his father. The plays he writes and the fiction he weaves reveal the puzzles and complexities of the immigrant experience. He reveals the insults of being judged by the color of his skin or his name, the insults born for being Muslim, and his confusion about the meaning of wealth and success in America.

In the eyes of his father, the son is a wastrel who is failing to embrace the opportunities of the American Dream. With so many opportunities available to him, the father cannot understood why his son would squander his options for the luxury of telling tales about the people in his life. Even after the son becomes successful, his father remains disappointed with what he considers a lack of ambition. Why would his son want to be a writer?

Akhtar masterfully portrays the way children born in the United States to immigrant parents, live in two cultures and form a double-consciousness. What other children assume, these children must assert. A name, a religion, a skin-tone, and sometimes the bald prejudice of others are relentless reminders of another identity. For Akhtar the moment of assertion comes when he is already a successful writer and making a public presentation. A member of the audience takes exception to comments he has made about the role of the arts in addressing social problems. His interlocuter suggests that if Akhtar doesn’t like the way things are in America, he should go somewhere else.

“It took me a moment to speak: I didn’t expect to be emotional, but I was,” Akhtar writes. It is a break-through moment. “I’m here because I was born and raised here. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. For better, for worse – and it’s always a bit of both – I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve never even thought about it. America is my home.” Who but someone aware that others see him as an outsider needs to make this assertion for himself?

The son of Akhtar’s story, who asserts his American identity, is witness to the fact that his father has never been truly at home in the United States. Akhtar says of his father: “As much as he’d always wanted to think of himself as American, the truth was he’d only ever aspired to the condition . . . . he’s been playing a role so much of that time, a role he’d taken as real.”

Immigration creates misalignment in the relationships of parents and children. They feel embarrassment for each other in places where, each in their own way, they are not understood: the parent in the new country, and the child in the old country. They are also witnesses to each other’s sadness. The child sees the parent’s rejection and feels pain for losses that are inevitable. Even for the immigrant who embraces the new home wholeheartedly, it is a “cruel paradise.”* Even the most assimilated immigrant is shadowed by consciousness of being an outsider.

The children of immigrants know a world that is not their world anymore, but it is still the world of people they know and cherish. In the old familiar places from which the family has come, the child born in America will always be a visitor, welcomed and doted on, but a visitor nonetheless. Inside the immigrant household, settled in America, there are layers of life that are strange beyond its walls. The immigrant child, crossing the threshold of the house while coming and going from home day by day, is crossing cultural borders. It is not possible to transplant homes and home places. The immigrant child is always, to some degree, an emotional nomad.

In a stirring scene toward the end of Homeland Elegies, as the son says farewell to a father who is returning home to his place of birth, both the pain and the love are evident. The weeping son tells his father he is sorry. “I didn’t know what I was apologizing for, but I knew I had to apologize,” he says. His father does not accept his apology. “No, no . . . ,” the father says. But the son needs to be heard. He grabs his father’s coat and pulls him toward him, while the father is still objecting. “. . . I pressed in and drew him closer, pressing myself to him, feeling him as tightly against my body as I could. I held him there until he stopped resisting. It wasn’t until he tried to speak that I realized he was also crying now. . . . Only the embrace between us mattered now. If only I could hold him close . . .hold him longer. Maybe what was broken in both of us could finally be mended.”

Many immigration stories are either victim stories or resentment stories. They focus on the undeniable hardships of immigration or the injustices acted out on those who are judged by others to be outsiders. Both of these are true to the experience of immigration, but there are additional elements in Akhtar’s account, and that is the merit of his story. He does not destroy the bond between father and son even as he narrates its difficulties. Instead he brings into view the indescribable sadness of immigration as it creates irreparable separation between the generations.

The sadness of immigration is felt in the second generation when children look at their parents who remain alien no matter how long they have lived in American and no matter how hard they have tried to fit in. They may be citizens, they may be taxpayers, they may vote, they may serve in the military, they may be eligible for social security, and eventually they may be buried in American soil, but they will always be partly alien. They will never be as completely American as they assume other Americans are. That is the sadness of immigrant children. The title of Ayad Akhtar’s novel is accurate. It is an elegy. It is a sobering reflection on something that has passed away and is gone.

Akhtar’s novel is autofiction: the protagonist has the author’s name, and many of the elements of the story parallel events in the author’s own life. Despite this Akhtar deftly avoids the blunders so common in this genre. He does not conceal himself behind the excuse that his self-revelations are “only fiction.” Whether they are identical to the particulars of his life, they are true to the experience of his life. He writes with the forthrightness of someone who has been cut on the sharp edges of immigration. So is Akhtar’s writing fiction or memoir? Who cares? The writing is fluid and lean. The story is frank and colorful. And within a few pages the reader is hooked. The story deserves to be read. It surfaces so much that Americans need to be considering with each other.

*Hylke Speerstra and Henry Baron, Cruel Paradise, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.

Looking for Dawn by James C. Schaap

Book Review: Looking for Dawn by James C. Schaap. Floyd River Press, 2017.

Most stories are woven around characters. It takes a different sensibility and a determined imagination also to weave a story around a place. That is especially true of the region in which James Schaap has chosen to place Looking for Dawn. It is not a location like those around the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben or the Empire State Building, where recognizable landmarks create immediate familiarity even for those who have never been there. The land to which James Schaap takes us is familiar only to those who have lived on it, learned from it, and understood it over time.

Initially I was drawn to Looking for Dawn because the setting is near the place where I was born. Schaaf is writing about South Dakota; I was born across the state line in the western part of Iowa. As I worked my way into his story, however, I discovered how little I know about this region of my birth. A look at the map reveals towns with small populations, surrounded by vast open spaces that to the uninformed spectator appear empty. Schaap’s portrayal of these spaces is not empty; it is vivid with history, a testament to a deep story that is ongoing.

Through the voice of one of his characters, the author suggests, “ there was more horror out on the limitless plains than other places, other worlds, even when there were so many fewer people.” This is a region in which spirits have been tested, and Schaap is not afraid to reveal the dark side of the struggle. He begins the story with a community’s reaction to an attempted suicide by a beautiful young woman. “Visit some rez cemetery,” he advises the reader, and there you will find the burial places of “dead men and women who breathed their last in some deadly blizzard, a way of death that was a way of life.” Giving up on life made suicide epidemic.

The Riders in Memory of Wounded Knee

The story Schaap tells occurs in December. It takes us to homes in which the lights have been put on Christmas trees. It also introduces us to dramatic scenes that fall on the darkest days of the year when on the Pine Ridge reservation the elders are preparing for the riders who make an annual journey in remembrance of Spotted Elk’s people and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Schaap’s story is rich with characters whose own histories merge these different streams: four young people breaking into adulthood as they emancipate from their families and sort out their identities, and four couples of various ages, who are sorting out the prospects and failures of loyalty. Set in a place where populations are small, this cast of characters is large.

Events in Looking for Dawn occur in the dark of night and in the dead of winter with “snow and ice and winds that freeze your eyes open.” The author takes these characters in their frozen predicaments and gradually thaws them. For some the struggle is a “dark night of the soul” for others it is a vision quest. Each character is either searching for something or running away from something past that will not let go.

The cycle of stories that Schaap crafts is brought together in a circle of reminiscence like ghost dances that connect the living to their ancestors. The reader, who sees only an empty landscape in the setting Schaap reveals, fails to understand that in this place, as in every place, life does not stand still. The stories of the fathers and mothers flow through their children and into the future. In this sense we are all connected to a place from which we come. Everyone has a backstory, and everyone has a future that has not yet come into full focus. To see it requires vision.

The most remarkable character in Looking for Dawn is Grandma Pritchard, an older Lakota woman who sees what others cannot see. She tells her seventeen-year-old grandson, Marcus, the stories of Wounded Knee, the Ghost Dance, and Big Foot, but he doesn’t understand why she keeps repeating the stories of “old days.”Marcus lives with another young guy in a trash-littered, rat infested farmhouse off the reservation. He makes just enough money to support himself by working in a grocery store, and he attends school in town sporadically. Despite the fact that his life is going nowhere, of one thing Marcus is sure: he doesn’t want to live on the reservation with his grandmother in her trailer.

Grandma Pritchard knows she has to let Marcus go, but as his guardian spirit, she goes with him. Marcus is linked to two cultures. The one he has received from his father and the other from his mother, although both of his parents have abandoned him. It is his grandmother who mirrors these cultures for him. Among her people she is a respected elder who preserves the “old ways,” while among the people in town she is a respected older woman, who attends church and is known for her abundant good sense. As Marcus observes her navigating what life sends her way, he begins to understand that her strength derives from knowing who she is.

Against the stark background of cruel weather and grating poverty, the love of this grandmother for her grandson is heart-warming. She understands what it is like to be young, because she can remember when she was young herself. She is not underestimating the confusion of voices when she advises Marcus “What you need is a vision.” He dismisses her suggestion with the excuse that the weather is too cold for any man to sit on a mesa and wait for a vision. “You just be ready, boy,” she tells him. “You just make your heart ready.”

Gradually Marcus recognizes in his grandmother’s stories and also in her silence that she speaks “to him in voices, new voices added to the many already talking in his heart and in his head.” The voices he hears are not lectures or bits of advice. She created “an empty place and made it clear he wasn’t supposed to fill it up with words . . . .”

Marcus discovers in his grandmother a person who knows how to be with those who are suffering, and she knows how to bring what is broken together again. She is a healer who is often present in silence. She “said almost nothing . . . didn’t hypnotize . . . didn’t wave a magic wand or light a smudge and bathe them in smoke and spirit – didn’t do any of that . . . . She seemed to know what medicine to supply and how much, how to manage the silence, what to say when something needed to be said.” Her presence is a power that changes every character by thawing the eyes that have been frozen open.

James C. Schaap

In Looking for Dawn James Schaap has done a similar kind of eye-opening. He is cautious not to overstate either the ugly or the good. His characters are neither villains or heroes.The momentum of his story is neither toward a life lived happily ever after nor toward one that gives in to hopelessness. Rather, he speaks into the bleak no-man’s land in which lives can unravel and hope may be lost, and with this beautiful story he offers “good medicine.” It’s a story for which a reader can be grateful.


The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia

Book Review: The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, translated by Simon Bruni, Amazon Crossing, 2019. Previously published as El murmullo de las abejas by Penguin Random House, 2015.

Although I read all sorts of novels, I am careful when recommending them to my friends. This beautiful novel by Sofia Segovia is one that I have been promoting confidently. It has something for everyone.

The Murmur of Bees is an uplifting story set in northern Mexico during the time of the Spanish flu pandemic and the Mexican Revolution of 1918. It is good reading for 2020, while we are isolated at home and worried that the sky is falling. The family saga of the Morales clan puts the reader in touch with the struggles of survival, but in this story endurance is not accomplished by the dog eat dog courage of individuals or the ingenuity of a lone problem-solver. It is achieved through the loyalty of family and the supports of a community that stays together through the struggle.

A murmuration of wild bees is one of the characters in the story. They are not the kind of bees kept in tidy boxes by modern apiarists. The bees of this story are wild bees moving en masse to establish themselves in a spot suited for building their hive. The life of a bee can only be understood in the context of its colony or swarm. An individual bee lives for only forty to sixty days, but the colony itself is a superorganism that can survive indefinitely as it moves about, gathers food, nurtures generation after generation of queens, and shelters in a protected space.

Segovia convinces us that the shared will to survive can accomplish what would at first seem impossible. Written in the style of magical realism that we have come to admire in the literature of her region, the magic of Segovia’s story is down to earth. She warps time and stretches space, but these effects are not so different from the distortions we ourselves create when we attend selectively to what is happening around us and fail to notice what does not fit our expectations. Lived time is fluid, and magical time is flexible. We always live in patterns that are somewhat unpredictable.

The bees of Segovia’s story are an apt device for looking at a world with possibilities beyond what we can see. Bees have five eyes. Two of them have hairs on the surface that allow bees to see the wind. Their sensitivity to ultraviolet light allows them to locate the sun on days when it is hidden behind clouds. They are remarkable navigators. Bees and many other things in nature surround us with a constant murmur of events beyond our ken.

Sofia Segovia

The same skill upon which Segovia draws to show us the magic of nature, is evidenced in the portraits she creates to introduce us to the human actors in her drama. Her characters are both complex and ordinary. She sketches them with earthy honesty. They are types, but they are not stereotypes. The stories within the story are like blocks in a quilt, stitched together firmly along their edges, and formed into a dramatic whole.

Segovia assembles a family portrait in which every sort of love is present. She delicately sketches the love between a traditional father and a free-spirited son, between a woman and her parents, between an aging husband and wife, between the members of a large-hearted family and a foundling they adopt, between a woman who loses her own child and the children for whom she is the wet-nurse. She understands the devotion of a man to the land he has inherited. She introduces us to a boy who cannot speak because of a cleft in his palate and reveals the deep bond he forms with a younger boy whose constant companion and protector he becomes.

This vibrant family, in whose saga we are allowed to share, is no more ideal than any other family. The characters have quirks. They make mistakes, and they seek forgiveness. They are beaten down by tragedy and challenged by the political events taking place around them. Their story weaves through time, and it swerves off in unexpected directions, but it always continues onward. With the voice of Francisco, whom we have followed from birth until he is an old man, Segovia tells us:

“But let me tell you what I know, what I’ve concluded: it doesn’t matter whether time passes slowly or quickly. What you can be sure of is that, in the end, all you want is to have more . . . . More of those annoying arms that picked you up to stop you doing something crazy. More tellings-off from the mother who you thought was a nag. More glimpses, even, of your father hurrying somewhere, always busy. More soft embraces from the wife who loved you all your life, and more trusting looks from your children’s young eyes.”


The Misappropriation of Age: When Books About Old People Aren’t Funny

A Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 years old, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans,  Grand Central Publishing 2017.

There is a growing genre of comic fiction about old folks. In 2014 Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg wrote The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. It was originally released in Sweden, but was translated and distributed worldwide, eventually becoming a bestseller in Canada and selling over one million copies. She had followed in a trail blazed by Jonas Jonasson whose book The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared sold over eight million copies. Fredrik Backman gained attention when his novel, A Man Called Ove, was translated from Swedish to English and distributed worldwide in 2016. Most recently Dutch author Peter de Smet has captured a spot in the genre with The Secret Life of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ years old. After first holding a place for over thirty weeks on the bestseller list in the Netherlands, it has now been released in twenty-one other countries, along with its sequel On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 years old. Each of these authors has gotten rave reviews.

The authors are brilliant observers of ordinary people, but there is another key ingredient they all share. They make people laugh with impossible details and slapstick scenes about old people. What hundred year old man can climb out of a window? In a scene reminiscent of the sad clown in the circus taking a prat fall, Hendrik Groen tells of Mrs. Been, who fails to lock the wheels on her wheelchair, and when it tips over she falls onto a fully loaded tea cart. It may be funny when this happens in a circus, but it is a disaster in a nursing home. So hold the laughs. Backman recounts Ove punching out a clown in the waiting area of a hospital. The clown offers to entertain children by making a coin disappear, but uptight and stingy Ove, a man who has barely survived dire poverty, thinks the clown is trying to rob him.

These stories have a problem with cultural appropriation. When Oprah’s Book Club promoted Jeanine Cummins American Dirt, a story about migration, it caused a stir because Cummins was not part of the group whose story she was telling. It began a conversation about who gets to tell stories? What gives an author legitimacy? This is an important issue when victims of discrimination are portrayed in literature. It is also a fair questison when applied to portrayals of aging.

Stereotyping is a way of locking those from whom we want to be separate in the space of “the other.” Laughing at them might make the distance seem less brutal, but for the object of the put-down the shaming intensifies the insult. Portrayals of race, disability, gender, ethnicity, and alternate lifestyles have frequently been portrayed this way in stories. Values are changing. Blackface on stage isn’t funny. Lisping jokes about gay people aren’t either. And a president who mocks a man with a mobility impairment is totally out of line. Isn’t it time to add age to the list?

Fredrik Backman

When Fredrik Backman wrote a story about Ove, the author himself was thirty-five years old. He created a troublesome old man, rigid in his ways, and full of self-pity about his losses. If Ove were your neighbor you wouldn’t be laughing, and if he were your grandfather, then shame on you for laughing. We laugh about our prejudices because we lack the intention to do anything about them. We might call this the “guffaw defense.” We use it to avoid having to look at tragedy squarely. What gives a young author legitimacy in writing about an older perseon if he crosses the line into stereotyping, disrespect, and bullying?

Peter de Smet was just over sixty when he wrote the story of Hendrik Groen, a character in his mid-eighties. What de Smet turns into humor is far from humorous for real older people. Hearing loss and visual decline are not comical, they are the stuff of daily humiliation for those who are isolated by these losses. Woven through his stories are comic images of older people using mobility devices ranging from canes to mini-cars. Getting around is a problem not a joke for many older people. The author stoops to calling aging men “old coots” and older women “biddies.” His name calling crosses the line into bullying.

One of the most painful scenes in Hendrik Groen’s story occurs at the bingo table when the number “44” is called. An elderly woman bursts out with the words “hunger winter.” In the winter of 1944 during the occupation of the Netherlands by Germany over four million citizens of large cities lived with drastic food shortages. Twenty-thousand died of starvation. Many ate cats, rats, and grass. Children went to bed night after night with the ache of hunger in their bellies. Is an older woman’s memory of this funny? Does she deserve to be reminded that younger people tire of hearing the same old stories? De Smet was born after the war. He did not live through “the hunger winter of 44.” Does he get to speak for those who did?

Humor directed toward those who are considered marginal carries with it an unspoken message of social expectations. When we laugh at older people for being old, we are also telling them that they should minimize their inconvenience to others, accept that their time of usefulness is past, remain silent about past events because we aren’t interested in hearing about them over and over and over again. In short, we are telling them to suck up their loss and step aside.

It is hard to talk with the young about aging, because they are trying to put off dealing with it as long as they can. Perhaps that is nature’s way. They have other important things to do at earlier stages of life. That which they hold at a distance will inevitably catch up with them, however, and sooner or later they too will die. If they are fortunate enough to put it off for a while they will get old along the way. The pain of that inevitable truth is what gets laughed away with “guffaw defenses.” Meanwhile through all the laughter we fail to ask what the value of growing old might be. Is it a wasted stage of life? To get a purchase on that we might have to stop laughing and ask someone seasoned with age.

I am not suggesting that authors give up writing fiction about older characters, but I am suggesting that when authors do write about them they not bully this age group. Older characters are interesting, but age-shaming isn’t funny. There are examples of authors who’ve gotten it right. In 2017 when Elizabeth Berg wrote The Story of Arthur Truluv, she herself was seventy years old. She understands the meaning of loss that comes with age. Her novel has depth that some of the others in the genre lack. She also understands that loss does not begin with age, and she creates a touching alliance between a colorful young woman and two older adults. Berg makes it clear that they need each other. Her writing mixes humor with compassion. It is not a mushy novel; it’s a respectful one. We might even call it “age appropriate.”


A Review: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 2017.

Reading during quarantine has shaped my tastes. I’ve been willing to dig into thick books that require a time commitment, because these days I have time. When I started Rachel Kadish’s historical novel, The Weight of Ink, I wasn’t concerned that it was six hundred pages long, and when I reached the last page I would gladly have read on for a while longer. With this adventure in historical detective work built around the discovery of a lost document, Kadish joins a guild of talented writers like Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book) and Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve) who can turn obsession with a manuscript into a gorgeous historical portrait.

The Weight of Ink is the story of two fascinating women. Ester Valasquez is a Jewish woman living in London in the 1660s, who by tragedies of history has become the scribe for a blind rabbi. It is a time in which few women learn to read or write, and in which a rabbi would not turn to a woman to assist with correspondence unless there were no one else.  Even in households with wealth, the lives of women were consigned to chores that left no time for learning. This division of labor was rationalized by the widely held view that education is wasted on women because they lack the native ability for it. Ester’s education and intelligence make her an oddity.

Ester’s story coincides with the Great Fire of London that took place in 1666 and the Great Plague that struck the city from 1665-1666. It was a time of social chaos, and misery was everywhere. In sidebars seamlessly woven into the story, Kadish creates a portrait of seventeenth century households in which women were responsible for the grinding labor of laundry, food preparation, and keeping the fires for cooking and heating continuously tended. In a time of disaster the difficulty of all these duties was multiplied. If life was hard in general, it is unspeakably hard for women.

The second woman of the novel is Helen Watt, Professor of History, who finds a trove of Ester’s documents, hidden away under the staircase in a seventeenth century home that is being remodeled in a gentrified neighborhood of modern London. Watt is an expert in the era in which the documents originate, and has the skill to translate the languages and difficult scripts in which they are written. To accomplish her work she must navigate the hurdles of modern conservatorship and the crass competition of a university department.

Did readers introduced to The Weight of Ink three years ago, when it was first released in 2017, find the details of quarantine and plague as fascinating as we find them now during the quarantine of 2020? The effort of finding food and commodities, as well as the oddity of masked citizens cautiously moving about the streets of the city easily play into our imaginations now. The tolling bells announcing deaths and the sounds of undertakers’ carts delivering the dead to mass burial sites, without traditional ceremonies or a gathering of mourners, remind us of the lonely deaths and unattended funerals in our own time. Rats moving freely in empty streets and the fear of contagion as people pass each other in public places resonate with our own fears.

During this strange and unpredictable time of our own quarantine, we wonder if practices shaped by social distance will become the new normal. Will we again sit arm to arm with strangers in theaters or airplanes?

Will the time return when we can hug and kiss friends and relatives at funerals and dance with friends and family at weddings? Will choirs again sing together without fearing that along with projecting beauty they are spreading death?

Quarantine and losses resulting from confinement serve as fertile metaphors in The Weight of Ink. Women were permanently confined to a smaller world than that offered to their male contemporaries. Lack of education and opportunity permanently isolated them. We do not have to go back centuries, however, to find a time when this was the rule rather than the exception. Less than one hundred years ago Mary Whiton Calkins, who served as a Professor and research assistant at Harvard University, was denied a degree despite the brilliance of her work. The reason given: Harvard would not grant a degree to a woman. In the presidential election of 2020 it will again be the case that, after electing forty-five men as Presidents of the United States, some of questionable character and limited competence, we still will not be offered the opportunity to vote for a woman to hold that office.

Sometimes quarantines are necessary. Wearing a mask while traveling on an airplane makes good sense, and avoiding flying altogether may be a prudent choice for now. When we are in quarantine mode we tend to over-restrict, because it is better to be safe than sorry. For the time being we may have to tolerate that too. But what about the permanent restrictions we place on human flourishing for no other reason than our lack of willingness to see the costs of small mindedness?

There are forms of quarantine that are arbitrary and destructive, and no matter what the circumstances we cannot justify them. We lock out refugees. We take distance from those who do not dress as we do, speak as we do, or worship as we do. In times of uncertainty we cast blame on those we think are not like us, and we create permanent forms of social quarantine.

The Weight of Ink is a good reminder that overcoming arbitrary quarantine requires breaking old habits and testing rules. We have an opportunity, while we are feeling the pinch of quarantine, to examine other forms of arbitrary social distancing. As we take steps to reopen our communities and neighborhoods, will we also have the courage to open our minds and hearts to move beyond unnecessary forms of social distancing to which we have become accustomed?

The Secret Wisdom of Nature: Trees, Animals, and the Extraordinary Balance of All Living Things by Peter Wohlleben. Greystone Books, 2019

For a third time in less than five years Peter Wohlleben, a forester turned author, has given us a volume of stories about salmon and trees, deer and ants, bark beetles and wild boar, and much more. The reverence that Wohlleben has for the natural world and living things is expressed well in the title of his trilogy: The Mysteries of Nature.

Simple language and a playful tone make Wohlleben’s introductions to ecosystems seem like treasure hunts led by someone who knows where the treasures are hidden. Peter WohllebenLest anyone conclude from his light-hearted tone that the author is ignoring the scientific work of others, one need only look at his bibliography. It’s impressive. Wohlleben is a committed scientist as well as a naturalist with boots on the ground

When Wohlleben started out in 2015 with The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, his readers were fascinated to learn that trees live in groups that communicate with each other to share resources, support their weaker members, protect their young, and ward off outside threats. The most amazing things about trees, his readers learned, are not what we humans see, but what we don’t see and about which we know little.

Writing in the style of great naturalists, Wohlleben introduces the giant inhabitants of the forest in a way that supplants our irreverent view of them. He pushes us to move beyond thinking of them as immovable objects, handy for shading us in summer, convenient for providing us with wood for fire and furniture, and then worth little more than being the victim of a chain saw when they stand in our way. These are not stories about the shrubs in our yards or the lonely trees we plant along the margins of our streets. Wohlleben introduces us to great forests, some of which have trees that have been growing there for hundreds of years. Through Wohlleben’s expert eyes we gain new respect for trees, their neighborhoods, and the large and small creatures with whom they live in cooperation.

After having challenged us to see that trees are more complex than we thought, Wohlleben moved on to write The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion – Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. The stories in his second volume tell of caring parents, embarrassed horses, and rats that show regret after bad choices. The tales may remind us of the sentimental projections of ourselves onto the animal characters in children’s storybooks, but that is not what Wohlleben is doing. In fact he is doing the opposite. He is helping us see how grossly we underestimate animals, how little credit we give to other living things for managing their habitats, and how cooperative they are in the quest for life. He is pointing out our blind spots, and it is not make-believe. Far from it. Woven between the lines are Wohlleben’s warnings, tactful but candid, that our preoccupation with controlling living things for our own benefit makes us unable to see their beauty and intelligence.

Those who have read Wohlleben’s first two volumes have become accustomed to the agility with which he moves back and forth between the smallest fungi and the largest trees. He helps us zoom in on the feeding habits of beetles and the mites that live with them, but he also helps us zoom out to consider great historical sweeps of time during which changing circumstances caused forests to migrate from areas in which they could not survive to new zones in which they can.

Some of the speculation in The Secret Wisdom of Nature is daring. The author suggests that the prevalence of certain kinds of forest might actually cause drag on the speed with which the earth rotates. Some kinds of branches and leaves may collectively act like huge sails that catch the wind. He also speculates that coniferous forests can cause rainfall in ways that deciduous ones cannot because of the way they alter condensation in the updraft of air. He does not suggest that these are huge differences, but he does believe they are measurable, and he advises us not to neglect small differences that occur on a large scale.

Wohlleben’s sense of scale expands and contracts, his observations from around the globe are nimble, his ability to ask dramatic questions and then hold himself back from hurrying to shallow conclusions bespeaks his method. He is a naturalist. He has been watching, and over the long arc his observations have been filling in to compose an intriguing picture.

I could go on. The marvelous morsels in these three volumes are nearly limitless, but there is one part of the discussion in this third volume in particular that deserves special mention. Peter Wohlleben is fully aware of ongoing conversations about ecology and the health of the globe. Because everything is connected to everything else, altering habitats for human convenience or in the service of industry has consequences that go beyond regions, beyond borders, and even beyond continents.

Within the frame of this conversation, which for so many authors is the occasion for grim prophecies, Wohlleben advises his readers that nature can be trusted. It’s ingenuity is greater than ours. The solution for dealing with the problems of the environment should begin with an intention to stop interfering with it. He recommends that we leave nature alone, and that we do this on as large a scale as possible. If we stop getting in the way, Wohlleben suggests, nature will heal itself. 


A Hidden Life (2019) A film by Terrence Malick

What’s the Value of an Oath?

Terence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, takes three hours to view and far longer to process. The first impression of the film is its aesthetic craft. The settings in South Tyrol are dreamlike: mountains, waterfalls, fields of waving grain, and rushing rivers. The camera angles and lighting bend the sense of scale so that the viewer feels enveloped in the scenes that spread across the screen. Tucked into this alpine terrain is a picturesque village marked by its tall church tower.

Close up scenes in A Hidden Life are as stunning as the landscape. Many occur in dark places where light enters as in a Caravaggio painting: in a low-roofed cattle shed, deep in a well that has gone dry, and in the corners of spare dwellings. Few words are spoken, and the actors’ gestures are slow, creating an impression that one is viewing portraits rather than actions. Some of the posed postures of the actors echo scenes of saints and martyrs, like those seen in stations of the cross or the wayside shrines that can be found along roads in the Tyrolean countryside.

Layered onto this beauty is the story of a soul-searing struggle. Franz Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska are farmers in the village of St. Radegund. They live the seasons, work the soil, share harvests with their neighbors, and raise their three daughters in a bucolic setting. They are farmers with weathered faces who carry earth under their fingernails.

War and the rise of the Third Reich change everything. The family suffers hardship when Franz is called away for military training, because his work still needs to be done, and in his absence the burden of it falls to his wife and her sister. When his training is complete Franz is allowed to return home to continue farming, but the prospect that he may be called back to duty is always looming. If the war continues and he is ordered to report, he will be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich, but his conscience does not allow it.

Franz gets little support for obeying his conscience. The Mayor pressures him not to make trouble, and neighbors ostracize him and his family for not going along with the new political order. The agony of his aging mother makes Franz’s resistance seem cruel. His parish priest reminds him repeatedly that his refusal to serve will bring suffering to his wife and children, and the bishop advises him against civil disobedience. Only his wife stands with him, encouraging him to do what he believes is right. Everyone knows that if Franz refuses to take the oath and serve the Reich, he will be arrested and executed.

On the surface the rationalizations for compromising his concience seem convincing. Franz can do non-combat duty as a conscientious objector; he can cross his fingers and speak an oath he doesn’t believe, and no one will hold that against him. Repeatedly Franz is reminded that swearing a false oath is a lesser evil than the suffering he will cause those whom he will abandon. Even the judge at his trial suggests to Franz that he is paying too great a price for his willfulness.

I was raised in a community in which memories of World War II and the occupation of the Netherlands were still vivid. As kids we sometimes debated whether there were circumstances in which lies were justified. If you were hiding resisters in the attic and German officers came to the door demanding to know who was present in the house, would you tell them? It was a good question for children who had been taught by parents and clergy that they should always tell the truth.

Our most common answer to the ethical dilemma of telling the truth in wartime pivoted around the excuse that bad guys are not entitled to the truth. The blame for necessary lies rested with the enemy. Some debaters with a more delicate conscience suggested that they would lie, but immediately after the soldiers left they would also confess the lie and ask to be forgiven. The most novel answer I ever heard was the girl who suggested she would offer the soldiers tea, thinking that kindness and a warm beverage would distract them from their mission. I can’t recall anyone ever suggesting they would tell the truth and let the person hiding in the attic die. Determining where to draw the line between crass deceit and necessary lies was intriguing, because we knew the line must be drawn somewhere.

Commitment to the virtue of truth-telling has softened considerably since I was a child. In many instances it has been replaced by a more flexible view that allows for saying whatever serves you best — the right of self-expression. If you’re okay with it personally, then you are free to say whatever you like. The heroism likely to be admired in our time is the bold assertion of autonomy rather than solid commitment to something outside ourselves. But when radical autonomy is the ultimate value, it is hard to imagine what it means to wrestle with ones conscience.

Some might argue that refusing to commit to abstract values does not preclude being loyal to others. Military combatants still die in the service of the nation. Even though none may be forced to, parents still claim they would die for their children. Men who tote guns gamble their lives to defend their honor or their turf, but they also hold on to the delusion that they will be clever enough to pull the trigger first. Even the promises we make to those we claim to love have gone through revision as we have become more convinced of our right to autonomy. I am reminded of a man who explained to me his decision never to marry his long-term girlfriend: “Promises should be aspirational not burdensome,” he said. “When they no longer work, it’s time to move on.”

It is bold of Terrence Malick to make a film that asks us if there is a loyalty so basic that nothing could persuade us to disown it. The brutal predicament of Franz Jägerstätter inevitably raises the issue of loyalties for which it is worth dying. That is, after all, the meaning of an oath. It is a pledge warranted by that which is more valuable to us than anything else. If it is your honor, then your honor is destroyed if you betray the oath. If it is your God, then your faith is shattered when your oath is false. In the case of Franz Jägerstätter, a devout Catholic, taking the oath would have required pledging a loyalty that would trump his devotion to God, and doing that with God as his witness.

That sort of religious devotion is hard to imagine in an era of elective spirituality. To die for the sake of conviction is a quandary that hardly fits into the modern imagination, but that is the tension in A Hidden Life. It first treats us to an aesthetic feast, and then sends us home with a challenged conscience. To what are we ultimately loyal, so loyal we would put our lives on the line for it?

Onboard with Mr. Rogers

A Review of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Watching Tom Hanks play Mr. Rogers is a delight. He creates a version of a familiar figure that is convincing, without stooping to impersonation that is corny. As the film weaves together complex layers of a compelling story, we are taken back in time to the set of Mr. Rogers neighborhood with its familiar theme song and the distinctive trolley whistle. The film also lets us see Fred Rogers off-set in his home, with his wife, at the pool, and riding the subway in New York. Layered onto the story of Mr. Rogers, there is a new story of a friendship that gives us a different insight into the man Fred Rogers was.

Much credit for the success of this lovely film lies with the performances of a top-flight supporting cast. Matthew Rhys, in the role of Lloyd Vogel, has proven once again, as he did in ” The Americans,” that he can portray a dark and troubled character with relatable emotional depth. Susan Kelechi Watson plays alongside Rhys and sustains a tension that sets the character of Lloyd Vogel up for transformation over the course of the story. Chris Cooper plays an annoying alcoholic dad, who nonetheless loves his son, despite the fact that his son is stuck in anger about his father’s failures.

A fictional element in the film invites us to see Mr. Rogers through the eyes of Lloyd Vogel, a character based on Tom Junod, the journalist who wrote an article about Fred Rogers in Esquire in 1998. Although the role of Lloyd Vogel is largely invented for this film, an article written by Junod for the December, 2019 issue of Atlantic confirms that the portrayal of Mr. Rogers by Tom Hanks is true to character.

Fred Rogers has been dead for sixteen years, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the second film about him in two years. The documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” was created in 2018 to celebrate Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday. It’s worth noting that it is not children who keep coming back to check out Mr. Rogers again. It’s adults who find these films interesting. It seems we can’t get over our fascination with Mr. Rogers. But why? What keeps pulling us back for another look at him?

This new film reveals what parents watching Mr. Rogers on TV over the shoulders of their preschoolers learned long ago. Mr. Rogers’ approach to children was not shallow: he dared to speak of death, divorce, bullying, war, violence, and much more. Because children worry about these things, Fred Rogers was convinced that it is better for a child to talk about them with a caring adult than to brood about them alone. Child-viewers were drawn to Mr. Rogers because he was interesting, but they stayed with him because he was comforting.

Even more interesting than watching Mr. Rogers interact with children is watching him interact with adults. There are some steps that seem to be repeated over and over again. The interaction begins with adults asking Fred Rogers about his work with children, and in many cases they thank him on behalf of their own children, who were his fans. They assume that is his legacy, but then the conversation moves on to what many adults think of as Mr. Rogers’ eccentricities: the cardigans hand-knit by his mother, the navy boat shoes he wore on set, and his puppet voices.

There is a pivotal moment when adults realize that Fred Rogers is as serious about adults as he is about children. In an interview with Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show in 1983 we see this happen. Most striking about the interview, though, is what happens when Mr. Rogers sings “I Like You” to Joan. It is a song heard many times on his show, but this time he is singing it to her, a lightening fast comedian who can turn anything into a joke in order to deflect feeling it too deeply. As Mr. Rogers sings her defenses melt, and she realizes that he sees past her clowning and humor. He likes her, she is caught off guard, and she doesn’t know what to do.

Adults are often touched when they see these scenes in which Mr. Rogers interacts with someone so carefully and respectfully, but also so intimately and authentically. In her “Mr. Rogers moment” Joan Rivers had to consider what so many others have observed about him. Maybe he isn’t just a performer. What if he’s real and means what he says. Are we ready to hear it?

The thought that Mr. Rogers is authentic is confusing. It’s a complicated time for heroes, and not just for the heroes, but also for those us of us who admire them. We’ve been disappointed so often by heroes we’ve come to expect it; to protect ourselves we stay ready for when they will let us down. We admired Bill Cosby and laughed along with Pee-wee Herman, until we discovered a sinister side behind their entertaining personas. The trust we had for them degraded into embarrassment and rage, on our part, for being taken in by them. Because it’s hard to forgive, it’s hard to trust, even in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

That’s why it gets our attention when those who knew Fred Rogers best consistently reinforce our trust in him. Time and again they tell us that the man who played Mr. Rogers on the set is the same man who walked off the set and back into his personal life. It wasn’t an act. The crew that worked with him attests to this, and friends, like Tom Junod, give many examples of the remarkable compassion that was Fred Rogers’ way of life.

Mr. Rogers was extraordinary in part because he was so disarmingly ordinary. Few of Mr. Rogers admirers actually imitate the features that make him recognizable: a cardigan knit by his mother, the flamboyant toss of the shoe as he changes from street shoes to boat shoes, or his puppet voices. It’s hard to imagine singing his “I Like You” song to an adult without adding parody as insurance against being perceived as naive. If we are honest, and Fred Rogers would expect us to be, we have to admit that Mr. Rogers, though likeable, was a little eccentric.

Perhaps it is to balance our questions about Mr. Rogers’ eccentricities that we find his self-discipline so interesting. He lived a life that by many standards seems rigid: regular work hours, swimming daily for exercise, a restricted vegetarian diet, and the practice of praying each day for a long list of people by name. He played the piano, and was married only once and for over 50 years, both accomplishments that take a lot of patience and practice. Most remarkable are the notes and phone calls with which he reached out to stay in regular contact with people to whom he had made a commitment of caring. It all adds up to a great deal of structure. We can admire this about him too, but it is probably not this that draws us to him.

I wonder if our fascination with Fred Rogers is fascination with his commitment to radical kindness? Is that what seems too good to be true? We understand his commitment to the well being of children; caring about children is a popular cause these days. But what about a man who befriends those who laugh at him? Consider his ability to embrace Eddie Murphy with friendship after a SNL skit that merciless parodied Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood.

Can we understand a man who resolves to see the good in others no matter what? Mr. Rogers did not focus on flaws, and he did not have one category for friends and another for critics. Also he did not expect that good people would always be nice. Can we trust a man who does not fear speaking openly about difficult things, not because he is brazen, but because he is tender? Can we trust a man who loves his enemies?

As disarming as Mr. Rogers’ kindness seems to be, his example can make us uneasy. It took effort to become Fred Rogers/Mr. Rogers. To some his style seems foolish and odd. Is he too good to be true? In any case few of us have the grit and discipline to be as kind as he was. It’s easier to practice indifference than compassion. What will we be remembered for? What if we are remembered more for cruelty than kindness?

Perhaps that is why we keep going back to Mr. Rogers. We need another dose of encouragement. We want to check out once again if, with effort, it is possible to be a kind person. Is kindness real? Does its impact last? This is the feather of hope that Fred Rogers has given us.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, Simon & Schuster, 2019

Redefining the Love that Makes a Difference

Novels built around relationships are nothing new, but a story built around a quartet of relationships worked out as beautifully as Cara Wall’s new novel is a real gem. The author creates an intricate portrait of two couples that come from very different families and places, but by virtue of the husbands’ professions find themselves living in close proximity. The husbands are clergy who serve a large urban church. Their spouses are “ministers wives” who face the challenges of living in a glass house while figuring out what shape they want to give to their own lives.

Lily is a capable adult woman who carries the adolescent wounds of losing both of her parents in a car accident. She is chilly, intellectual, and opinionated. James, the tireless activist, grew up in a family struggling with poverty and the instability of a mean alcoholic father. Charles is a scholar, raised by a professorial father and educated in the ivory tower. His story seems predictable until he attends a lecture on Joan of Arc, and like the heroine feels called to an unlikely mission, in his case the ministry. And then there is Nan, nice to a fault, raised by a kind and generous clergy family, ideally prepared to be a minister’s wife.

The story of these two couples is not a “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” story. There is no rule breaking and no partner swapping to juice up the plot, which is light on scandal, but is heavy with sadness. The struggles that break into the lives of these four people are those experienced by many people. That is what is extraordinary about Wall’s story. She avoids the canned dramas of murder, scandal, and crime. Her dramatic touch points find her readers where they have lived.

Charles suffers a deep depression driven by religious doubt. James faces being fired by those members of the church who object to the social action projects to which he commits himself. Jane, who never wanted to be a mother at all, gives birth to a special needs child, and Nan, who was born to be a mother, suffers from infertility. Although these are all personal struggles, their ripple effects impact the church.

The time frame of Wall’s story is significant. The opening scenes are set in 1953 and occur on the coattails of the Greatest Generation. The children of those survivors of World War II — Charles & Nan & Lily & James — are boomers. They know the world is changing, and they are trying to figure out where it is going and how to find a place for themselves in it. They have choices to make: to believe or not to believe, to keep expectations or to break them, to be a fighter or a peacemaker.

Cara Wall has written a true boomer drama, and to her credit she has avoided all the flash and dazzle that boomers sometimes flaunt in claiming how progressive their generation was. Wall dares to dig deeper and expose the uncertainty that is the legacy of the boomers after all the long hair and psychedelic colors have faded. She brings the church into the mix, not in an idealistic way or in a critical one, but with honesty.

The role of the church is exemplified in a fifth character, Jane Atlas the church secretary, who were it not for her unusual name might go unnoticed. She is the “fifth business,” that character in a play, who though not a hero or heroine, carries the plot to its conclusion. Her surname is reminiscent of Atlas, who in Greek mythology is the character who holds up the heavens and comes through when the sky is falling. Her plain Jane first name is a reminder that her work is behind the scenes and often unacknowledged. She is like so many steadfast women in the church, who keep it alive by fostering the connections between people and continuing on when others give up.

In a final scene, at a baptism after fraught times and in the presence of struggling characters, Wall reveals the meaning of her book’s title. It is not the abiding marital love of the couples that has helped them endure, because their relationships were often on thin ice. It is a different kind of love entirely that has given them somewhere to stand. Charles addresses the people of his church, his dearly beloved:

…the people of the church were his beloved, so dear that as he spoke his heart and throat grew tight. He loved every person in this church more than he would have ever thought possible, loved them not with the automatic love of childhood or the easy love of coincidence, but with the tautly stitched love of people who have faced uncertainty together, who have stuck it out, the strong love of people who looked to their side while suffering and saw the other there.

Charles, the modern intellectual, the man of faith who has been shaken by doubt, is also the character Wall uses in the last sentences of the story to both echo and challenge the famous words of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic, the author of Revelations of Divine Love. Her unshaken confidence in divine love, despite plague, famine, and immense suffering, has echoed down through the centuries: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Charles’s confidence is less bold. Times have changed. Faith is difficult. Doubt is easy. Nonetheless in a statement of hope, unusual for a modern author Wall says: “Charles knew all was not well. All was not well, all would not be well, but all was not lost.”

Celebrating Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886

One hundred eighty-nine years ago today Emily Dickinson was born. Over the course of her life she wrote nearly 1800 poems, but despite some efforts to have them published, she only lived to see fewer than ten of them in print.

One cannot help but wonder what would happen to her poems if she were living now. Would she post them one after the other on Twitter? Would she blog on a website? Would she circulate her poems by email to a small circle of friends who would savor them briefly and then delete them, or let them disappear into a file named “Emily.docx” only to be lost in a computer somewhere?”

It seems Emily Dickinson had mixed feelings about writing and success. “Luck is not chance,” she wrote, “It’s Toil.” Although she tried to find publishers, she also was very particular and resisted any changes by editors. As a result her work did not make it into print. She chided those who made fame too important. “Fame is a fickle food,” she admits in one of her poems.

In one of her best known poems Dickinson gives full vent to her ambivalence, admitting that she is a “Nobody,” and contrasting that with being a “Somebody,” which she thinks is dreary. The famous become like frogs croaking endlessly to tell their names “to an admiring bog,” she mockingly says of them. Apparently she was more willing to accept being unknown than to accept the compromises of fame.

Dickinson’s solution to the frustrations of publishing, it seems, was to isolate herself in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she continued with her writing, sharing it selectively with her friends. It was her life.

Time has had the last word. Emily Dickinson has become one of America’s best known poets, although she never knew that herself. If she did not write for fame, what kept her going? One of the poems that I count among my favorites gives a glimpse of her inspiriation. I’m posting it here today to celebrate her birthday.

It’s all I have to bring today —

This, and my heart beside —

This, and my heart, and all the fields —

And all the meadows wide –

Be sure you count – should I forget

Some one the sum could tell –

This, and my heart, and all the Bees

Which in the Clover dwell.