A Private History of Awe.
Scott Russell Sanders.
Faber. 2019. 395 pp.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2006.
The Country of Language.
Scott Russell Sanders.
Milkweed Editions. 1999.
Scott Russell Sanders is the kind of thoughtful author who prompts readers to consider themselves and their own lives in an entirely new light. He is not judgmental—far from it in fact—but he has done a lot of thinking about his life and the choices he has made along the way. With both his new book, A Private History of Awe and an earlier title The Country of Language, Sanders lays bare great swaths of that circumspection to be studied and considered by the curious. He seems to be doing this so that readers (and in the case of Country potential writers) can learn what he has discovered, namely that a well lived life, a life of questioning and wondering and firm contemplation, is what makes a person happy. Delving into Sanders' world provides readers with ample excuses to think about their own lives, and fortunately they don't have to go on that journey alone. Sanders is a guide, a most worthy guide, to all things introspective. He's also a very good writer, so even if you don't want to peek inside your soul, you will still find his words to be quite engrossing.
In Private History Sanders takes us back through his life, staring with a happy early childhood spent in the country until a job takes his father to the Ravenna Arsenal in Ohio. At the arsenal his father's drinking rises to a whole new level and the sad, predictable track of his parents' marriage is played out over the ensuing decades. Although his father does find the strength to quit at one point, for quite awhile, the marriage is never really good. Later, the bottle returns and slowly takes away all the good memories and all the future good chances.
It is a credit to Sanders' writing ability that he takes the totality of his father's life and preserves it as something significant and precious. The elder Sanders was not an easy man to love, and the relationship between husband and wife was clearly not a happy one, but there are still those moments of rightness that have endured in Sanders' memory. On one such occasion father and sons disrupt a beehive, a situation that is potentially fatal to Sanders' younger brother Glenn. His father deflects their attention, allowing Scott to grab his baby brother and run out of harm's way. Later, he sits in the kitchen and has the dozens of stingers he received in the process removed.
I had often seen my father without his shirt," writes Sanders, "because he liked to work that way in hot weather, but seeing him now, upright at the table, with welts rising all over his ruddy skin, and seeing Mama bent over him, pulling out the stingers and then tenderly dabbing the spots with cotton soaked in ammonia, the two of them oblivious for the moment of Glenn or Sandra or me, their fights forgotten, it came over me how beautiful they were, and how much they loved one another. The love seemed larger than my parents, larger than all five of us in the kitchen, larger than our ragged farm, larger than the Arsenal laced with bombs, large enough to hold every creature and river and stone on earth.
Right there was a taste of heaven, I decided. If Dad could have just kept sitting at the kitchen table and Mama could have kept tweezing out those stingers and dabbing the welts gingerly, while we three kids stood by watching like a little chorus, all of us caught up in a force brighter and bigger than sunshine, we might have been happy forever.
But it didn't work out that way, because it never does. The fact that Sanders keeps his story from falling into appeals for pity or some sort of sordid shock drama is why readers will not want to leave the Sanders family behind. Even when happily ever is clearly not going to be evident (at least for his parents), the young writer's slow creative awakening continues to build, and it is impossible to ignore.
Through Private History the reader can follow Sanders' life, as he goes to college, struggles with a decision to seek conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War (a painful choice which has an unpredictable outcome), and meets and marries the love of his life. He has had what might seem to be an unremarkable and unexceptional life, spent teaching and writing in Bloomington, Indiana, not far from where he grew up. But all of this quiet living (or apparent quiet) has left a lot of room for appreciating what so many of us miss. It is his realization of this that partly moved him to write Private History:
If I live long enough, I will eventually forget my own stories, which is one reason I write them down. The mind's grip on language and meaning is less secure than the body's grip on life. If you doubt that, visit a nursing home, as I have been doing frequently for more than decade... elders have a duty to tell the younger generations what they have learned from life, whether the lessons be great or small. So I have been moved to write this book as much by the departure of parents as the arrival of a grandchild. I have been moved to write by an awareness that the mind's acuity, built up over a lifetime, is precarious and fleeting.
The Country of Language is full of life lessons from the author, and serves as yet another most worthy entry to publisher Milkweed's Credo series. (Writers should not frequent the "how to get published in 30 days" section of the local Barnes and Noble; they should just buy the whole Credo series and be done with it.) Most interestingly, Sanders did not see himself as a writer from an early age, nor did he have dreams of publication fame and fortune. Words were simply his passion, something that any dedicated reader can identify with, and writing became a way of understanding and processing the life around him. "What I do know is that writing is my slow, stubborn way of asking questions, tracing the contours of feelings, thinking about what moves and troubles me. And I know that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe art is a hedge against loss."
A hedge against loss—a way to live forever. Craft a life worth living and then commit those memories to paper while they still live within you; while they still are part of who you are. That's the gift that Sanders is giving to his grandchildren with his books, and lucky for all of us, he has seen fit to share them with the larger world as well. The fact that he has lived such a fascinating life and can write about it so evocatively is just a bonus, and certainly something that makes his books a real treat for readers; a thoughtful and rich, readerful treat.
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