Tag Archives: Grief and Bereavement

Ordinary Grace

ORDINARY GRACE

by WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER

Atria | 2013
Paperback: 315 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4585-9
Genre: FICTION/ Families/Minnesota/Murder/Grief
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★★

It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus. He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. . . . I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

Years ago, Garrison Keillor invented Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and I found myself yearning to live in that simpler time, a town “where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average”.

In that same vein, William Kent Krueger has introduced the world to his fictional hometown of New Bremen, Minnesota – a small town seated in the valley of the Minnesota River. A town divided by class, prone to racism, and proud of its deep Christian values. A town where the wealthy homes fill the scenic “Heights” and the working class fill the lowland “Flats”. A place so isolated, the Methodist Church fulfills the spiritual needs of other marooned faiths. A community where everyone knows your name and just about everything else about you – or so they think.

From the first page, the first words, I knew that I was going to be transfixed. The book isn’t perfect; I saw the end coming early but it didn’t detract from the story. It is a fabulous coming-of-age story akin to To Kill A Mockingbird. I would like to add that I am not a deeply spiritual person but this carefully crafted book left me filled with wonder.

The story progresses in a linear fashion and you feel you are standing alongside each character as they are tested mentally, spiritually, ethically and morally. Sometimes you will feel the rush of panic or the agony of despair. Other times you will find comfort in the kindness. Above all, you will cheer the small miracles and the frequent signs of ordinary grace. There are some passages that will stay with you long after you finish the book.

Frank Drum, now middle-aged, narrates the story – a story of New Bremen in the summer of 1961 when he was 13 years old and his brother, 11 year-old Jake followed him around like Peter Pan’s shadow. For the rambunctious Frank and insecure stuttering Jake, summer time meant tempting fate on the railroad tracks that traces the river’s edge and “seemed to reach to a horizon from beyond which came the sound of the world calling.

That tragic summer started when a little boy wandered onto the tracks and was killed by an approaching train. We join the Drum family during the funeral as Pastor Drum tends his flock. His daughter, Ariel, is playing the organ and her brother, Frank thinks – There are [musical] pieces I cannot hear without  imagining my sister’s fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.

Little did  anyone know that Bobby Cole’s death was the first of a cavalcade of deaths that would forever change two families – the  Drums in the Flats and the Brandts in the Heights.  Each of them in their own way will learn the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

As the years have passed and all that’s left are memories of that fateful summer and the people, Frank leaves us with this thought that he heard from Warren Redstone, an Ojibwa  native.

 

Highly recommended!

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Watch Me Disappear

WATCH ME DISAPPEAR

by JANELLE BROWN

★★★☆☆

IT’S A GOOD DAY, or maybe even a great one, although it will be impossible to know for sure later. By that point they’ll already have burnished their memories of this afternoon, polished them to a jewel-like gleam. One of the last days …before Billie died…

Spiegal & Grau | 2017
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8946-5
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Missing Persons
Review Source: ARC e-book from Netgalley

Billie and Jonathan Flanagan have been married for 16 years and have reached that stage in their relationship where things have gone stale. Billie rejuvenates herself by trekking in the mountains alone or with a friend. The time comes for a little more “me” time, and she announces she is going alone to a remote section of the Pacific Crest Trail for a few days.

When she doesn’t return, a search discovers her broken phone and a lone hiking boot off the trail. After a lengthy search, she is presumed dead.

A year later, their daughter, Olive, begins to have visions of her mother in various settings that seem to imply her mother is not dead but waiting somewhere to be found. Olive’s erratic behavior and frequent unexcused absences jeopardizes her attendance at an expensive private high school. Some feel it is delayed grief with the anniversary of her mother’s death and others believe she has a medical problem. She is convinced she is a psychic.

Billie cannot be declared officially dead for a year which has left Jonathan in limbo financially. Without a death certificate he cannot receive the life insurance benefits. Shortly before Billie’s death Jonathan had quit his job to follow his dream of writing a book. Now, a year later, without his wife’s income, Jonathan is struggling to pay the bills that include the expensive private school tuition for Olive.

Jonathan has begun the court directed process of “proving” his wife is not dead. In the search through the family’s financial records he discovers secrets his wife has hidden from him. As he peels back the layers of her deception, he discovers a secret life before their marriage.

The mishmash of issues including Olive’s “visions”, financial woes, Billie’s secrets, and Jonathan’s weak-kneed personality seemed so directed and contrived but overall I consider it a nice simple read. If you excuse my vulgarity, the purview of an old woman, I wished Jonathon would grow a pair.

It will come as no spoiler that Billie is still alive, but the reasons why will be a surprise. The ending did make me say, “How about that”. If you are looking for a book with a simple plot that you can take with you to read at the car service center, here you go.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry / The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Harold and queenie Collage

St. Bernadine’s Hospice
Berwick-upon Tweed
Monday, 11 April

Dear Harold,

This may come to you as some surprise. I know it is a long time since we last met, but recently I have been thinking about the past. Last year I had an operation on a tumor, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing left to be done. I am at peace, and comfortable, but I would like to thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago. Please send my regards to your wife. I still think of David with fondness.

With my best wishes,
Queenie Hennessy

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012 in the US, quickly reached international success. Harold Fry, a dapper Brit from a tiny town of Kingsbridge, finds himself unable to post a letter to a dying friend. Each time he reached a post box, he walked on to another, until he found himself on an unintended walk across England. As he walked on, Harold believed that as long as he walked, Queenie would stay alive waiting for him.

Twenty years earlier, Harold and Maureen Fry were rocked by the suicide of their only child, David. The Fry marriage, already on fragile ground as David slipped further from them emotionally, became a shadow relationship after his death. Maureen became caustic and unlovable.  Harold, unable to express his grief, put his life on remote control, living each day as a robot.

As Harold walked on in his yachting shoes, inadequate footwear for a 600+ mile trek,  he meets many side characters that provide levity, sorrow, inspiration and friendship. Memories of better times become loosened from a locked place his mind and by the time he reaches St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon Tweed he has learned much about himself and has hope for his future. 

After finishing Henry Fry’s pilgrimage,  I wanted more! What was Queenie Hennessy’s backstory? More details please! I wanted to hear things from Queenie’s point of view.

So, I was thrilled when the author deftly crafted Queenie’s story in 2014. This second book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, is written from Queenie’s perspective as Harold walks across England. It is the perfect companion book.

When my book club chose The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy for our March (2017) selection, I thought I would skim The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to refresh my memory. In the end I found myself re-reading both books in quick succession.

Both books begin with Queenie’s letter to Harold; Love Song includes the entire text of the letter while Pilgrimage hits the high points. It has been 20 years since Queenie suddenly left her job at the brewery. Her recent letter catches Harold off-guard as she writes that she has terminal cancer and wants to tell him, ” Thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago.”

As Queenie learns that Harold is walking across England to see her, she is encouraged to write a letter about her life. We learn her side of their relationship through these letters.

Queenie’s unrequited love for Harold, a secret social relationship with Harold’s son, David, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for Harold drove her to leave Kingsbridge in sorrow and grief. With no destination in mind, she simply heads away until she reaches the end of land and faces the ocean. As she walks into the water to drown herself, she stops herself when she discovers the mysterious life beneath the water. She finds an abandoned house on the shore and begins creating a massive sea garden with representations of persons and events from her past. Along the way she finds she is able to make friendships and to live a simple quiet life.

Like the first book, Queenie’s story is filled with hospice patients that show all of us that life isn’t over until the last breath.

As much as I loved Harold’s book, I think seeing their story through Queenie’s eyes was a deeper and richer experience. Describing Queenie’s hospice life and her interactions with the staff and fellow residents is heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time.

If I go into more detail about either book, I will spoil it for the reader! The stories touched my heart strings. Please do the author the honor of reading both of these books. I highly recommend them.

Sources:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (personal copy)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Advance e-book provided by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange of my honest review.)

 

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The Sunlight Pilgrims

Sunlight PilgrimsThe Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan

Hogarth/Crown | 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-553-41887-3
Genre: Fiction/Survivalism/Dystopias

ARC Hardcover from Blogging for Books and E-copy from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★☆

format_quoteThere are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn-perhaps forever…Parhelia...Some say it is the end of times…Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself… Penitents. B-blizzardmaninsnow.jpglin’-drift. Owerblaw…Snowflakes cartwheel out of the sky……..

Sunlight Pilgrims-
Prologue

The melting of the polar ice has reached its most extreme. Worldwide temperatures are plummeting rapidly. Winter has arrived early and getting worse every day without any uptick. Experts say it might never leave. Temperatures dropping as winter advances -15°F… -30°F … -70°F. Sea water contaminated with fresh water and frozen as far from shore as can be seen with the naked eye. Snowfall depths are unprecedented worldwide. Many believe a new Ice Age has begun.

A setting this catastrophic would seem to be the focal point of the story when in reality it is only the set dressing; choosing to focus instead on the minutia of humanity and three individuals specifically amid the uncertain future of the planet.

quoteDylan McRae, 38, mourns the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother. If his heavy grief wasn’t burden enough, he learns their home and source of family income, an old London movie theater named Babylon, has gone into bankruptcy. His mother’s will contained surprising news of a caravan he now owns in a small Scottish caravan park in the middle of God knows where.  She asked that he spread both women’s ashes in a remote Scottish village, his grandmother’s birth place. Gathering up what belongings he could fit into his mother’s old suitcase including Grandmother Gunn in an ice cream container and Mum in a sandwich box he heads north facing the rapidly approaching deep winter. His plans are to sell the caravan after fulfilling his mother’s last request and head back south to some where warm like Vietnam or Cambodia.

Upon arriving at caravan #7 on Ash Lane he briefly spots a young girl in the window next door. Later in the night he is awakened to a strange noise and discovers a sleepwalking woman hoovering up the street before entering the caravan next door. Reentering the street with a dust-cloth she reaches up and polishes the moon.

The young girl next door is 12 year old Stella Fairbairn. Precocious, bold, foul mouthed and outspoken, Stella arrives on his doorstep to quiz Dylan about his arrival and relationship to the last visitor to that caravan; Vivienne- his mother. Stella has been a girl for the past thirteen months.  Previously she was a boy named Cael. Stella has always felt she was a girl. No doubts. She is bullied at school and obsessed about the changes puberty will bring locking her inside a male body forever.

Constance Fairbairn, Stella’s mother and the moon polisher, is a free spirit and a survivalist answering to no one.  Stella believes she knows just about everything and should go back to teaching. Was she a teacher? We don’t learn if she was but she does have a great deal of trivial knowledge. Constance earns her living removing furniture from the homes of the dead and scouring the town dump for items to be re-purposed.  Her life style and romantic choices have made her the central focus of town gossip primarily for maintaining two on-going and simultaneous 20 year affairs… the result of which yielded young Stella…or as her father prefers Cael.

Constance’s story is more obscure as she has pretty much found her own voice and is happy with her life. We learn what we know about her past from the conversations between Dylan, Stella and other minor (but very interesting) characters. Dylan finds a sketch book left by his mother and discovers family secrets that shake his world and the reason his mother bought that particular caravan. Stella begins to shed false friends unable to support her transgender status at the same time yearns for love and acceptance often daydreaming of a normal life as a wife and mother.

As Dylan, Constance and Stella’s lives are revealed in the light of day, winter shrinks their days and threatens their very survival. When they venture outside, we learn that amidst the approaching apocalypse there is sublime beauty only nature can provide.

Thoughts

  • Transgender coverage was very real and will perhaps give many readers a different perspective and hopefully more compassion and empathy. For me personally, I guess I never realized how brave and courageous someone would have to be to present themselves openly and honestly to the world.
  • Grief has no time limits. Dylan’s story dragged on and on just as it does in real life often stressing friendships and relationships.
  • Love.  Many unique perspectives of love.
  • Survival. Are any of us ready to face a new Ice Age. How would you behave trying to feed your family or keep them warm temperatures at -70°F and with over 10 feet of snow trapped.  The world is trapped. Would you survive?

In the end I was glad that I had done some research on the book before I read it.  It helped to know that the pace of the book would be very slow. As I expected in a true tragic situation, simple life goes on amid life altering outside influences.

Recommended.

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