In Need of a Shoelace

I admire the way William Kennedy’s Ironweed faithfully depicts a particular time and place, an era, and a universal sentiment that remains applicable today. How many of us wake in the morning refreshed, forming new aims, and quickly meet with practical challenges–personal, political, or both–then lie our heads at night to close our eyes against all of it, knowing how and where we lie our heads is subject to wide judgment.

Francis Phelan represents both the down-trodden and the resilient. In 240 pages and a 48 hour period of narrative time, we roam the streets of Albany during the Great Depression with Francis and his side-kick, Helen Archer.

We see hunger, guilt, joy, and death in the day in a life that represents all of the days of a life. We witness the raw want of forgiveness, not of sin, as Helen says, but of decision. We glimpse  ghosts from the past as they appear to accompany the present.

We examine need in perspective, a simple prop, one thin shoelace, as it represents the ties we form through connection and compassion, and an inexplicable will to walk on.

Ironweed is a story that is read and remembered. Third in a trilogy, it stands alone as one of the greatest books written in the past century, a contemporary classic.  If you haven’t read it, do.  You may find yourself surprisingly buoyed by Francis Phelan’s singular response to a plural existence.

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Heidi Durrow: The Woman Whose Story Soars

It is with great pleasure that I review author Heidi Durrow’s 2010 award-winning novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky as the first in my Reading My Way to 50 series. After hearing the author speak on  a panel at the 2011 AWP Conference in DC last week, I was thrilled to see that she would grace our hometown bookstore just seven days later. The verb grace is one that I choose purposefully to describe Heidi Durrow, the person: articulate, smart, elegant, and engaging. And, she’s sassy, too.  I would use all of these same adjectives to describe her book.

Heidi’s forty-five minute reading spanned both the depth and breadth of her experience bringing the book into being over the past twelve years. For Heidi, the book represents a labor of personal evolution and intentional social commentary. She won The Bellwether Prize for Fiction honoring literature for social change, a boon that brought her work into the publishing arena. For her audience, it offers thought-provoking content, shining characterization, and pure reading enjoyment.

The book’s  popularity is wide, so I will skip a synopsis that may be read in a hundred other places.  The story is told by a series of narrators, each of whom is impacted by a singular tragic event. Each of the perspectives questions the why behind the event and offers a piece of the puzzle that leads the protagonist, Rachel, to her eventual self-discovery.

Many reviewers of this book write about race and culture, identity and family as note-worthy  themes brought forth in this story. What this review will highlight is the way the author structures the five year span of time and trans-regional setting in the novel. Imagine holding the end of a pencil in your left hand, with a rubber band wrapped halfway around the erasure tip. Now pull the other end of the band with your right thumb and index finger. The pencil represents Rachel’s fixed point of view from her new home in Portland, Oregon. She tells her story in a first person present tense narration.

Each chapter featuring a different narrator–a courageous eye-witness, a kind neighbor, an errant father, and a dead mother through her personal journal–is told from Chicago, in a third person, past tense point of view. With each chapter, the story stretches out into the wider view and away from Rachel’s limited frame of reference. Yet, the wider story revolves around her well-being. This technique allows readers to claim a firm alliance with Rachel’s coming-of-age evolution (we never once let go of the pencil) while gathering compelling information that ensures the innate goodness in humanity. In essence, we know more than Rachel, before Rachel knows it.

Each time we release back into Rachel’s forward-moving present, which becomes increasingly heart-wrenching, we view her passage with a greater sense of hope.

Now imagine this, as the novel progresses, the length of the stretch decreases each time it is pulled, until, in the book’s somewhat predictable but not unwelcome conclusion, the perspectives are united. Some of the threads are left unraveled, but I admire that in a book. I appreciate a writer’s faith in the reader to reach in to her own imagination and make decisions about what could happen next.

Will there be a sequel?  Heidi says, maybe. I could go either way. But, what I can say for sure is that I would read any forthcoming book from a debut novelist who writes with such confidence and conviction on a topic we would all benefit from re-visiting.

Click below to see a video of Heidi’s real grandmother.