Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude. The best stories do this. They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.
This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller. Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.
The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy. Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters. That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.
Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media. Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems. Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.
This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic. There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family. I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease. Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely. Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often. The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry. Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict. But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.
If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft. My favorite line of the book:
“We die backward.”
In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death. In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing. The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves. People died when Sandy hit. Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news. Maybe only if we knew them personally. But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.
As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life. None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us. Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.
My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep. Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn. In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing. I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers. The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins. The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss. Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.
“We die backward.” Indeed.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you? Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.
Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres. Is it poetry? Is it fiction? Is it memoir? Is it mystery? While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all. Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact. Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another. This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.
There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.
Here’s one of those treasures:
“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys. I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark. I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano. I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves. The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016. Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)