We’ve just spent several days at Hecla Island, probably our last camping trip of the year. The routines and menus of these outings are virtually identical–one leaves the routines of home only to fall with pleasure into the routines of away–but there’s always something interesting that differentiates each from the other. This time it was the garter snake, and next the skunk ambling toward me on the path (diverging to another path before it reached me, which as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference), and then the full body plant in the lake when I stumbled on a slippery rock at the shoreline. And a particular book.
I’d attended, on Friday evening, the launch of Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, subtitled An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), which tells the story of Mierau and his wife Betsy adopting two young brothers from Ukraine. It seemed a good book to read aloud, as we sometimes do when on the road or away, and so we did, beginning on the drive to Hecla and continuing at various interludes–by the fire, over our morning maté or in the evening after H. had dealt with the flies drawn out of the cool autumn evening into the warmth of the trailer (though he never managed seven in one blow like the valiant little tailor of Grimm’s fairy tales fame). We finished the book on the return drive.
Detachment is a moving memoir, not only of adoption–parenting a challenge at the best of times, and additionally complicated when your children come to you at three and five not knowing your language and scarred from loss and orphanage life–but of marriage and how our families of origin continue to shape and haunt us long after we’ve left them. The book opens with Mierau in conversations with his psychologist, which lay out problems for which he’s seeking help. These cleverly establish the confessional impulse of the book, arouse curiosity and sympathy in the reader for whatever “tell all” lies ahead, and suggest the narrative arc of the story. The story of the adoption and becoming a new family then unfolds in a further series of scenes in various settings–Ukraine, Winnipeg, Cuba, etc. Woven into the adoption story are episodes from Mierau’s past as well as the trauma of his father’s childhood while his family fled Russia after the Second World War. The writing is fine and unembellished, the tone steady and at a slightly cool remove, as befits the emotions aroused by the material. I did find him rather hard on his Mennonite past, especially his grandfather, though when he imagines Cornelius’ death, he grants him slivers of solace in his faith.
A memoir like this is undoubtedly a risk; readers will be tempted to suppose they know Mierau and the other characters (being present in the psychologist’s office and all), though I think I can also say, as a fellow writer, that what they know will be far from the whole. What he’s offered, though, is something deep and true and specific about himself, which touches what’s specific also in us and provokes thought on the universal human quest for connection.
Speaking further of autumn so definitely in the air (the clamoring flies the sure sign of it), let me reach back over my summer’s reading to recommend a few other books.
About Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf), the first sentence in my book journal was “This is a seriously good book.” I loved her A Complicated Kindness, and the same smart funny voice with its over- or undertones of sadness shows here, but even more perfectly integrated, in my opinion, than in the other; the line it maintains is tautly brilliant all the way through. It’s a book about sisters, about one sister (the narrator, Yolandi) trying to keep the other (Elfrieda) alive, this when the women have already lost their father to suicide. There’s so much to say about this book, but this post is already getting long so maybe I’ll just link to The Guardian review, say ditto, and let it be.
I also read some collections of short stories. Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan is a 2007 book, but she’s a writer I particularly want to learn from; her stories are worth the read and the study. The more recently published collections were: Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz (great on older characters trying to bring past and present together), You Haven’t Changed a Bit by Astrid Blodgett (taking us skilfully into the heart or emotion of a matter, and excellent on creating a sense of peril), and Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley (set in Montana, and playing intriguingly with the cultural mismatches suggested by the title.)
Now I’m almost up to seven in one blow myself, not flies but books, so just to say that on an earlier camping trip back at the onset of summer, I enjoyed Patricia Pearson’s Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going. The experience of her sister’s dying prompted this Canadian writer to investigate a range of topics like nearing-death awareness, terminal lucidity, “Third Man” experiences, sleep paralysis, out of body perception and more. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis three or four times myself, most recently, actually, this weekend while camping. A figure whose face was hooded neared; was very close. I was terrified but could not speak or move. When I finally found voice, I bossed it off, loudly enough to wake my husband. The hood dropped and I saw the face beneath. A little startling, yes, but more unusual than scary. (Don’t bother asking; I’m not saying.)
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I was at Mierau’s presentation and am looking forward to reading his book. “All my Puny Sorrows” is still waiting to be read. I’ve been in the throes of reading Beth Powning’s novels (“Shadow Child” and “The Hatbox Letters” published in 1999 and 2005) I have learned so much about writing (her descriptive style is so detailed but never tiring) and about life (especially from the perspective of death).
As to the flies–I have vivid memories of our kitchen ceiling in Paraguay just covered by them-and as a result I have a paranoia about flies!
Thanks Elfrieda; and I’ve put Powning on my list-to-read.
Thanks for that Dora. Someday I will step back into the wonderful world of literature and especially current Cdn lit- in the mean time you remind me of my deep love for good writing- and give me prompt or two to actually pick up a book of fiction. I think I need a period Hecla Island time as well 🙂 So don’t apologize for the longer post.
Good to hear from you James. You’ve got Van. Island time, but maybe that’s not the same. 🙂
Hecla is one of my favourite places and M Toews is one of my favourite voices. (So are you! Read The Mask this summer and very much enjoyed it.) I’m going to check out that memoir. I read a nonfiction book on Russian adoption and look forward to comparing the two. Thanks for the long post!
Hi Gabe, good to hear from you, and btw, congrats on your YA contract. (As an aside to readers, “The Mask” was carried in the summer issue of The Malahat Review; a number have asked about where to read.) Yes, you’ll enjoy the Mierau book.
Seven in one blow. Not flies but books. You have a seriously sassy voice yourself, Dora. Thanks for great recommendations. I must read the Toews book.
Some days more sassy than others, I’m afraid. 🙂
Why does the name Maurice Mierau sound so familiar to me? This is an intriguing book, but the title scares me, to be honest. As an adoptee and an adoptive mother, I wonder what can lie beneath such a scalding title. Yet, I am hopeful based on your review. By the way, I picked up “What You Get at Home” this summer, and I am eager to delve in at some point soon! I also just read and loved “The Wittenbergs,” by your friend Sarah Klassen. Please tell her I loved it, and I felt a real kinship to Mia. Next time I’m in Winnipeg by myself, I’d love to have coffee again!
I don’t know why, about the name, but don’t be scared, really, there’s so much love there too. Perhaps I should have said more about that. And I’ll certainly pass the message on. And let’s, let’s, let’s, when you’re in Winnipeg again. Do call.– I’m looking forward to your own book about adoption, Lorilee, if it’s anything like the blog posts you’ve written on the topic. Your story is encouraging and inspiring.
Thanks very much for the generous and insightful words about my my memoir, Dora.