Post #11 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
My introduction to the work of Janet Grace Riehl has been through her new audiobook Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music (available for $24.95). Janet’s ability to express universal human experiences of times past and present, spaces loved, characters living and lost is powerful.
But before I talk about her writing, you need a little background: The audiobook is an extension of Janet’s 2006 memoir, called Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, which she wrote as part of her healing process after the death of her older sister Julia Ann Thompson in a car accident. Julia, by all accounts, was a brilliant and dynamic physicist who was also a beautiful soul with a love of music, poetry, cooking and helping other people. She was just 61. Julia and Janet’s mother, Ruth Evelyn Thompson, Julia’s husband David Kraus and their grandson were all injured.
Although Sightlines is very personal, the reader is not left outside to be a distant observer, peering through a cracked door or listening at the keyhole. The reader recognizes the history, the humanity, the process as if they were her own. The experience is both calming and reassuring. But there’s more. Janet moves beyond the physical and emotional loss to grapple with the meaning of the loss. She starts by dividing Sightlines into five sections. The first is for Julia, or Skeeter as she was called. The second is for her father Erwin A. Thompson, nicknamed Slim. The third section is called Sweet Little Dove, after her mother’s nickname. The last two sections are named for the places Janet called home: Homeplace is for the family homestead Evergreen Heights in southwest Illinois and Lakeside for Lake County, California, where Janet lived at the time of the tragedy.
Janet examines selected pieces of her family’s lives, picking them up, turning them over, scrutinizing them like pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle. She tells the story of each piece as a vignette…with a twist. Narrative is not Janet’s medium, but rather something she calls the story-poem.
I admit, at first I was skeptical. I’m not a big fan of poetry—nothing against it; it’s just not my thing. Story-poems are different, and when strung together to paint a larger picture, to define a life or to give meaning to special places, they are things of beauty. Story-poems are spare, yet rich in sensory description and emotion. As you read, you become engrossed…a story unfolds. There is logic, if not always a chronology, to her story-poem progression.
Here’s an sample story-poem taken from the excerpts on Janet’s website. It’s from the section named for her father, Slim.
Back in California I give my Midwest cooking a rest.
Pizza out of the freezer passes for supper.
In Illinois I concoct elaborate stews and spetzle.
To cosset my father’s appetite.
To help his stomach march through Julia’s death.
His savor for life no longer sat
at the dining room table after the accident,
if that’s what it was.
“We’ll get through it,”
stubbornly flung over his stoic shoulder.
Her absence, his first-born, hard to stomach.
Punched us all in the stomach,
making it hard to breathe, let alone eat.
His pants lie low on his slim hips.
He sucks in the pain
like he sucks in his stomach.
“Slim,” a work nickname from gasfitter fame
could still apply at 89.
His back bends over
as though to pick up an imaginary pebble.
By some slight of hand,
he’s looked the same to me
since I had the sense to look.
I need to catch up,
to wake up to the march of his mortality.
How can I digest this news?
A world without him in it,
would be no world at all.
It’s one thing for the reader to read the story-poems for herself. It’s quite another thing to have them told by the author. I found myself caught up in each poem’s cadence, its economy of words. But this is not your typical audiobook. Listen; you will hear emotion, sensory description and deep feelings worn openly as if on frayed shirt cuffs. These 90 poems are an emotional experience made all the more compelling by the sprinkling of music (40 songs); family memories, like personal artifacts, told in dialog and narrative; and spontaneous laughter—verbal ephemera now captured for eternity. The slightly homespun sound only serves to enhance its charm.
With the Sightlines audiobook, Janet has given us more than a heartfelt family chronicle. She breaks barriers for the memoir genre that should get every memoirist thinking. The writer in me is inspired to create something unique for my family.