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Ohioana Quarterly, Vol. L, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 163-165

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

review by Kate Templeton Fox

A Private History of Awe is one of the wisest, most loving books I’ve read in years. Another recent book that perhaps comes close is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, with its narrator—a dying pastor who married late—trying to pass along to his young son what he considers most precious, but the comparison is not really fair; it’s always easier to be wise and loving in a fictional world. Sanders does it under the handicap of real life.

In the prologue, Sanders declares his purpose: “In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind.” He goes on to clarify: “Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall.” Sanders’ subject is, of course, life itself, but not just any life. It is this “ground of being” as it reveals itself in his own life and the lives of those he loves.

As he writes this book at the age of sixty, Sanders is inhabiting the world of “between,” watching his granddaughter Elizabeth begin her life just as his mother’s is ending. There are similarities: he finds himself taking Elizabeth to the park in her stroller one day and taking his mother in her wheelchair to the same park the next. Elizabeth has little past to remember; his mother can no longer remember the past. It is this last circumstance that fuels Sanders’ writing: “I have been moved to write by an awareness that the mind’s acuity, built up over a lifetime, is precarious and fleeting.”

What follows from this author, who grew up in Ravenna, OH, is luminous writing about those things most precious and, of course, they derive from memory, that most human of abilities: moving to a new place, fearing the dark, losing a pet, making mistakes, learning how strong—and how fallible—parents are, finding love for the first time and then again, leaving home, creating a new family, struggling with loss, struggling with meaning, struggling against the inevitable. All of these stories become flesh and blood through his telling, and more than once, he captures the “ground of being” dead on.

Perhaps the most moving of these is the story about helping his father one afternoon in the company of his little brother when they accidentally disturb a nest of bees. “Run, Scott!” his father yells, “Grab the baby and run to the house!” We don’t truly understand the import of this moment until three paragraphs later, when we learn that the boys have inherited their mother’s deadly allergy to bees. With the boys safely in the house, the bees swarm all over the father as he sets fire to the nest. When he finally heeds his wife’s panicked calls to “come away from there,” his entire upper body is covered with stings. “You saved the boys,” she tells him as she ministers to his wounds, and he responds, “Did I? Well then I reckon they’ll just keep eating me out of house and home.” Of this moment, Sanders writes:

I had often seen my father without his shirt, 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 . . . large enough to hold every creature and river and stone on earth.

A friend once said, “In the end, what we remember of our lives are not the big events, but the little moments.” And in those little moments, we can often glimpse the essence of what we have been given. Sanders not only examines his life in this quiet and powerful memoir, he celebrates it, and in doing so, he gently instructs us on how to do the same.

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