This Earth You’ll Come Back To by Barbara Roether

cover ideas.inddThis vivid, lyrical, character and place-based story (McPherson, 250 pages) begins with Rose Healy Koehner’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, searching a rural Ohio cemetery for Rose’s grave in 2008 while the deceased Rose watches from above and embarks on her life’s story told in the first person. The prickly, fondly contentious, mother-daughter relationship is apparent from the start in the underlying current of criticism that Rose levels at her daughter:

Course you couldn’t find it right away…You should have used the sense God gave you and asked your brother…Why you always insist on making things hard for yourself I’ll never know; but it’s just like you to take a simple errand and turn it into a full-blown crusader pilgrimage.

Stephanie, the youngest daughter of Rose’s ten children, has returned home after decades of wanderings, having run away at an early age, in part as a result of abuse that her family refused to confront.

Along with her irascible chidings, Rose also holds her daughter in bemused wonderment as Stephanie’s quirky and inquisitive nature reveals itself in a scene when, as a young child, she wakes from a nap:

“Dear heart.”
“What was my name?”
I stop. You watch my brows knit together, grimace. Maybe fever I think. Waking up with it. “What do you mean, you name? You know your name is Stephanie.”
I know, I know that,” you say, frustration in your voice.
“I don’t mean now, I mean my real name, before. Before I was here.”
Oh I felt a terrible chill like someone sneaking up behind me. I looked around the room, I didn’t know what. I stopped, had to think. I could feel you touching another place but it was not a place I knew.

This poignant, almost constitutional, distance between mother and daughter is threaded through the book as Stephanie ventures to place after foreign place.

As Rose unfolds her multi-generational narrative to Stephanie, the reader learns of the Healys: an Irish clan driven by famine to America where they find a physical freedom that Roether captures with Whitmanesque lyric sweep as an ancestor describes his 1856 swim in the Mississippi:

It seems that I have been held and burdened down for so long but now I am lighter moving ever deeper into the stream until I am held up floating easily, in the moss skin scent of fresh water I am in this river that is in the heart of this country and I dive under. I feel in each hip joint a looseness while the water holds me. I swim while the water brushes along my ribs, my chest. I breathe and dive, in rhythmic stroking.

In contrast to this initial sense of liberation, the Healys find continuations of the famine they have fled. Prejudice against their Irish origins, along with their own intrinsic flaws, drives them toward poverty, gambling, bootlegging, and brushes with the law. Rose recounts it all as a stoic, take-charge woman whose marriage to Rusty Koehner, a once romantic figure now reduced to incorrigible drunkenness, provides little support. In a remarkably vivid scene, Rose attempts to pull her family from its joyless deprivation with a seemingly out-of-reach trip to Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park. Within this scene, Roether constructs a paradigmatic event that embodies Stephanie’s restlessness:

But somewhere around there you were lost with your sister Carrie. The two of you wandering around, looking for the beach, which you finally found, but it was on the other side of a chain link fence, and no way to get to it. By the time you got back the lunch was mostly gone and the cookies all eaten. So all summer you had been waiting for this day but when it came, you ended up pressing your face against a fence and walking around hungry and thirsty, or so you said.

Stephanie, the dreaming wanderer, always seeking that place that remains somehow just beyond grasp and the “or so you said” incredulity with which Rose lives with this. Indeed, Roether is a master at developing her complex characters through crystalline depictions of their perceptions and actions. She also uses the trip to Cedar Point, (turned calamitous after a kitten dies in the car engine and a drunken Rusty falls asleep at the wheel, stranding the family), to illustrate Rose’s persistent struggle, against all odds, to make life bearable for her children:

And you piped up shouting at me, “We never should have tried to go to Cedar Point to begin with, then the kitten wouldn’t be dead and we wouldn’t all be stuck here.”

I thought you might be right, I thought now God’s punishing me for trying to put pleasure in our lives when the fates had ordained against it. Why I couldn’t seem to learn that I don’t know.

Rose’s heartbreak mixes with amazing lyric incisiveness as she grapples with the simultaneous death of her mother and Stephanie’s first, short-lived, attempt to run away from home:

It was the strangest thing. Once your father called to let me know you were on your way back, I could feel Mother leaving me then. I could feel her body start to recede into the distance like she was walking away, each step wrenching my bones with the force of her pulling away. Oh I knew it’s all attached somehow my mother leaves my daughter returns. There is a thread that runs between them needs be, tug of war across the river Styx.

It is this very tug of war that lies at the center of the book and drives it so effectively. How the living and the dead, across generations, pull on each other through continuing influences and subsequent reflections. The reader witnesses the Healy family farm destroyed by a railroad cleaving its center, only to find the next generation working for the railroad itself.

Roether builds layer on layer in discrete sections that move from place to place and from era to era. In the heart of The Depression, a starving man finds charity in the Healy kitchen making soup of hot water and ketchup and pilfering some crackers as the young Rose and her sister look on and Rose reflects:

I realized then that you weren’t supposed to say anything if you saw somebody stealing ketchup and crackers to eat because being hungry was beyond saying yes or no to. We felt it too, Jeanne and I wouldn’t look at him though we looked at each other, because we didn’t know if that would ever happen to us, that we would have to sip from a little cup of ketchup soup to live on until the next little bit came from somewhere. We didn’t know if that was so common or not. The way children don’t know what in the world is strange, because it’s all so unfamiliar.

The voracious business of just-getting-by follows close on the heels of the characters in this powerful narrative, along with remarkable vignettes that capture Rose’s incisive, and often humorous, perceptions of people. As when, again impoverished, she must solicit public assistance from a county clerk she disdains:

I’ve known Mildred Walsh for ten years and I never did like her. Knew her when I was working for the answering service over on Lima Avenue there, she was the front desk girl. Could never stand the way she smiled and nodded her head when ever her husband Frank said a word, with her tight little curls and false eyelashes, has an eagerness reminds me of a poodle on a leash.

and later, in the same scene, exhibiting her dry humor when Mildred inquires about the size of her family:

“…Now how many children exactly do you have?” she asks gripping her pencil in her blood red talons.

How many children exactly? Like I usually just estimate, or like I might not know.

Many of Rose’s children scatter west. She understands why. While visiting her daughter Jane, in Berkeley, she is taken to the top of Mount Tamalpais and, as she gazes at “the little toy model” of San Francisco from that distance, she reflects on place and the limitations that her Midwest home imposes:

I thought now in Ohio we never get what you would call a view at all. No high ground to look out from. I wonder if that makes people different, that they never get up and away enough to look back on where they are.

Roether’s artful juxtapositions reveal how Rose and Stephanie are bonded, in part, by being remarkably suited to their respective times. Rose, the stalwart depression-era head-of-family, and Stephanie the relentless, willful, 60’s dreamer. Both assert their compelling independence as time and place permit. But there is more than this at the center of their connection to one another. They both carry the burdens that others can’t or won’t:

You saw what you had been given to carry. In how things are organized in this country, maybe every country, though I wouldn’t know, someone has to bear the burden for the sins of the other. Someone has to absorb what is wrong so the others can go on. Usually those who do it are those who are able to. You and I share that quality.

The above exemplifies the remarkably sustained power of This Earth You’ll Come Back To . Throughout, Roether gives us deeply nuanced, varied and unflinching portraits of challenging times, evocative places, and a family’s hardscrabble history told through the flawlessly drawn character of Rose Healy. May this finely written and deeply affecting novel find the discerning readership it deserves.

Lindsay Hill, author of Sea of Hooks, 2013

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