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Nuvo, 3 May 2006

A Good Man Found

A Private History of Awe
By Scott Russell Sanders
North Point Press; $25

review by David Hoppe

The memoir has been the American literary form of choice for some time now. Readers have lately preferred their stories autobiographical rather than fictive, the narrative voice personal instead of imagined.

This is not to say that the reading public has lost its taste for characters and stories mad, bad and dangerous to know. These characteristics have been readily carried, in often gory detail, from the realm of what’s made up to what’s confessed with an ease — make that an eagerness — that would once have been called shameless. Browse the book reviews these days and it’s hard not to conclude that most memoirs are diaries of dysfunction, stories of addiction, ill health, overheated ambition and various forms of violence that, against what would seem to be the odds, wind up with some form of redemption. Ripping yarns, in other words, with talkshow-ready faces.

An exception to this market-driven rule is Scott Russell Sanders. For over 20 years now, the Bloomington-based Sanders has been resolutely showing the rest of us not only what it means to be a writer willingly planted in the Midwest, he has also made a major contribution to our understanding of the memoir as an artform in its own right. In this regard, his latest book, A Private History of Awe, is quintessential.

Sanders’ writing, like a Midwestern landscape, doesn’t call attention to itself. It is, nevertheless, elegant and, at times, powerful, as when he describes an infant memory of being held in his father’s arms and seeing a tree struck by lightning. Sanders has worked diligently throughout his writing life to craft a prose in tune with his sense of place. This has primarily involved the development of his voice: warm, plain-spoken and self-deprecating. It’s a voice, as Sanders tells us, refined through years of writing love letters to his wife, Ruth.

And so this book is a kind of extended love letter to what Sanders calls awe. “As sudden as lightning or as slow as pregnancy, these passages of clear vision occur only now and then, yet they give meaning to every hour. There is nothing exotic about such awakenings. They come to me in the midst of family and friends, at work or play, on the street, in the woods, in lighted rooms, under moon and stars. I am convinced they come to each of us, whatever our age or circumstances, whatever our beliefs about ultimate things. The enlightenment I wish to describe is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention.”

This is also a prose crafted to carry the heft of Sanders’ moral concerns. The story revealed in A Private History of Awe is about a Cold War boyhood informed and inspired by the natural world and the Bible. Then a fascination with space exploration and science enter the picture. Crises of conscience ensue: over weapons of mass destruction, the body, the land, race, faith, life and death. Let it suffice to say Sanders is not an ironist. Guilt seems a virtue to him and, at times, he treads close to earnestness. But he does so in moccasins. His touch is tender.

Given the fraught trajectories of so many contemporary memoirs, A Private History of Awe may strike some as uneventful. Uneventful, that is, in the way that caring for a dying parent, or looking in a grandchild’s eyes, falling in love or leaving a beloved place is uneventful. In this, Sanders’ project, while modest in tone, is actually radical. Toward the end of the book, he tells about trying to put together a reading list for his students at Indiana University: “I had searched for stories in which a husband and wife love one another deeply, feel grateful toward their parents, look forward to becoming parents themselves, and then welcome into their marriage a child who arrives like an emissary straight from glory land.”

Sanders couldn’t find significant art that met these criteria. He settled, he says, for authors who loved the world in spite of its darkness. “Hope,” he writes, “this compound of courage and imagination, now seemed to me the essential ingredient not merely for a teacher or a writer but also for a father.”

A Private History of Awe is about one man’s attempt to be decent, to be good, in a world where it’s often easier to be otherwise. Although Sanders would be the last one to say that he’s succeeded, the way he writes about the effort — its grace, its precision and its honesty — comes close to showing us what heroism really means.

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