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?

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.”

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 2019

Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, is a fictional story that occurs in a real location with GPS coordinates and a name on the map. The author creates a narrative built around verified reports of what happened at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. It was once the largest reform school in the United States. It had a large campus and a polished exterior which veiled the horror show of beatings, molestation, and murder that occurred there. The school operated from 1900 until it was closed in 2011, after inspections uncovered appalling evidence of a longterm pattern of abuses.

Whitehead could have written a non-fiction account; certainly he has the talent as a writer. He could have given us numbers to detail how many boys were detained, and he could have cited coroners’ reports and forensic evidence gathered when a team from the University of Florida excavated the graveyard on the property. The gruesome evidence of their reports has been confirmed in accounts provided by the men who were sent to the school when they were boys, and the stark details are readily available to anyone who bothers to do even an elementary internet search for details about the school.

The Nickel Boys goes deeper than cold facts. Whitehead uses the skills of brilliant fiction writing to walk readers up close to the personal nature of the cruelty suffered by the boy victims of the Dozier School. He introduces us to Elwood, a young boy being raised by a grandmother, who labors as a hotel maid to support him. She suffers for him and clings to the faintest glimmers of hope that his life will someday be something that was never possible for her. He is a smart kid, eager to learn, ready to read anything he can get his hands on. His dream of going to college seems within reach.

Elwood’s fall from hope into despair pivots on an event that could not be predicted. On his way to visit the campus of the college he hopes to attend, Elwood hitchhikes, but the man who picks him up is driving a stolen car. This incident echoes the story of Jefferson told in Ernest Gaine’s A Lesson Before Dying. In that story an innocent man hitches a ride with two men who stop off at a store and end up robbing it. Both Jefferson and Elwood are ruined by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In both stories their mistake is not having their own transportation, as if poverty and lack transportation can honestly be called a mistake.

Whitehead’s ability to juxtapose hope and hopelessness is profound. One Christmas young Elwood had been given a record of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and he had listened to them so many times, he knew them from memory. He wants to be the man Dr. King describes, but one ride in the wrong car has turned his fate around. Elwood is torn out of the safe zone of his grandmother’s love, and sent to a reformatory, but the words of Dr. King go along with him, and they run through his mind continuously as if they are his own.

Elwood keeps hearing the voice of Dr. King reminding him never to relinquish his will to be somebody, no matter how much others try to put him down. Locked away in an ugly and cruel place Elwood reviews Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. He hears, recorded indelibly in his own memory, his hero’s promise that nobility comes from the power of love and the will to help others.

At the training school Elwood is starved and overworked. No matter how hard he tries to preserve his own nobility, he is nonetheless subjected to the same despicable treatment that all the boys suffer. When he intervenes to stop a boy who is bullying another, he is taken to the notorious white shed for a beating, along with the bully and the victim. Like the others he is beaten with a leather strap that leaves deep bruises and open wounds. Effort and good intentions make no difference.

It is unsettling to be reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches in tandem with accounts of Elwood’s horrifying experiences. Whitehall forces us to look squarely at hate and venality. We are made to see that where justice is suspended anything can happen. The author will not let us turn our gaze away so that we can avoid the hard questions. What finally has more power, love or hate, innocence or evil?

Locked away in solitary confinement, in a room without light, and aching from a beating he has barely survived, Elwood is forced to rethink Dr. King’s noble words. “The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen.” It had told Elwood not to love, or trust, or stand up to be counted, but he resisted and went on believing the message of a higher way. He wanted so earnestly to believe what Reverend King had preached: “Love and the love will be returned, trust the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change.” These are the words of Dr. King to which he had been clinging to keep his hope alive.

As Whitehead’s skilled writing brings us into the cell with Elwood, we are told: “In those long hours, he struggled over Reverend King’s equation…. No, he could not make the leap of love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.”

This might be a place to end a story as tragic as the story of Elwood, but Whitehead does not leave us there. That would be too clear a conclusion. In a sense that would be too easy. The author pushes us on and continues the story. He brings us into the present with an epilogue that makes us realize that, even if we can close the book, the story is not done.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Olive at Last

It’s a delight to have Olive back, a few years older and salty as ever. For readers who first became acquainted with this enigmatic character in Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel called Olive Kitteridge, catching up with her a decade later in Olive, Again is like meeting up with an old friend. Although Olive isn’t exactly like a friend; she’s too edgy for that. She is more like an old haunt. Something from the past that lingers, a presence you can’t forget completely because it doesn’t blend in with all the ordinary memories that gradually fade away.

A book is a perfect way to get to know a character like Olive, because you can put a book down. Dealing with a character like Olive in real life would be hard work. Let’s be honest; coping with Olive could be more work than it’s worth if you happen to be one of those people she decides she doesn’t like.

Having other characters share in Olive’s story is intricate work for an author. Olive creates confusion, and her cutting comments chip away to reveal others, like a sculptor’s chisel working in marble. Elizabeth Strout is brilliant at creating interesting secondary characters, who can stand up to and seem real alongside someone as complicated as Olive.

Readers like Olive. We become her fans as we are ushered past her curmudgeonly exterior to get a glimpse of the insecure and lonely person within. In the story Olive regularly embarrasses others, and vicariously she embarrasses us, her readers. We are granted literary distance, however, and that permits us to catch the image of ourselves briefly in her mirror and then move on.

Elizabeth Strout, through the character of Olive Kitteridge, is a brilliant observer of the way we all are when we think no one is watching. Olive is an old woman who has difficulty with bowel control. In her own mind she refuses to use the euphemisms for discreet hygiene products. She calls them “poopie panties,” but she also admits to a friend that she goes to the store early in the morning when there are likely to be fewer customers there to see her purchasing them. Her foibles are out there for us to see, and along with the chuckle we release while observing them, we grow a fondness for Olive.

Olive does not suffer fools gladly. As we read we might wonder if she would suffer us gladly. Talking with a young woman about the death of her father, she reminds her that her father was never quite “right in the head.” Olive describes a respected citizen of her hometown as “an old bat,” and she does so without hesitation or apology. She makes comments about other people in a voice loud enough for them to hear. More important to Olive than being proper is being honest. 

Not all of Olive, Again is about Olive. Some of it is about her hometown of Crosby, Maine. One full chapter is about characters from one of Elizabeth Strout’s other novels. The chapters hold together like a collection of short stories. They move around from one time frame to another. They pull up details from the past and plug them into new stories in the present. This is an interesting feature of Elizabeth Strout’s writing. She seems to create stories about characters who have a life of their own, and it is not limited to the book in which they are revealed.

Some of Elizabeth Strout’s stories are built around passing encounters between characters who are nearly strangers. Her ability to draw us close to those characters reveals a remarkable empathy for her characters, but an equally remarkable empathy for her readers. She knows how to get to us. Sometimes we are drawn into observing scenes that are attention-gettingly awkward or larded with humor. Our peering into them almost seems voyeuristic. We laugh at the awkwardness. We laugh at Olive’s eccentricity. The humor makes us drop our guard, and then it leaves us undefended when the tragedy sweeps in.

One remarkable story begins with Olive’s comments about a woman who once was a guidance counselor in the local high school but now is old and living in a “rest home.” Her husband died in a house fire when their large old home on the edge of town burned to the ground. Olive surmises that the widow in the rest home has “gone completely dopey-dope.” Sometimes Olive is the local gossip, and what she reports in the voice of cold cynicism rings merciless. But there is that other side of Olive. It emerges just as we might be judging her cold exterior. Olive knows tragedy when she sees it. She feels it somewhere deep and wordless. As she is driving past the burnt out house she comments, “Sad, sad, sad.”

From one episode to the next we see Olive’s own life shrinking. She is widowed twice. Her grandchildren outgrow her. Her only child lives at a distance. Her acquaintances die off. She moves into a facility where she can receive supportive care. One afternoon she attends a funeral for an acquaintance named Barbara.

She sat now in the early afternoon on one of the chairs set up in the meeting room for Barbara’s memorial service; she had put on a pair of poopie panties just in case…. About twenty people sat in a room that could hold three times that many. No one was weeping….

After the funeral Olive muses about her own life. She realizes that it is moving toward its end, and that all the things she has lived through and gathered into her memory will soon be gone. She goes to the typewriter on which she has been recording her memories and on a single sheet of paper she writes:

“I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”

We can assume that the first sentence is Olive’s. It fits the narrative. But whose voice is heard in the second sentence? It is so like Elizabeth Strout to shape-shift voices. All we know is that Olive places the sheet of paper on the top of the stack of memories she has been writing. It closes a story about an old woman we feel we have gotten to know, and it is the end of Olive, Again