Resurrecting Forgotten Lives: The Millions Interviews Stacy Horn

- | 2

Stacy Horn defies death by ceaselessly writing books about it.

Although her first book, a memoir titled Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, was about her creating the New York City-centered social network Echo (a network she still administers), nearly all of Stacy Horn’s subsequent nonfiction has centered on death in some way. In a second memoir, Waiting for My Cats to Die, she mused on both feline and human mortality, polled members of Echo about middle age and what they wanted to accomplish before they died, and joined a cemetery’s board of directors. A third book, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, married true crime and journalistic writing: four unsolved cases provided the narrative, but detailed descriptions of the Cold Case Squad detectives and the NYPD’s history still rival anything found in David Simon’s similar classic Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets.

The Restless Sleep was the first book of Horn’s that I read, and it was part of a wave of nonfiction titles I  devoured after an epic reading slump in my 20s that I now recognize was the result of reading a lot of modern fiction that I wasn’t enjoying. Books like Horn’s helped me realize that nonfiction, for better or worse, was going to be my reading home. She subsequently obliged my nonfiction habit by producing two more investigative works: Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, a history of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and a pseudo-biography of its longtime director Dr. J.B. Rhine, and the other, a deep dive into the history and science of choral singing titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others.

Her new book is a history of New York City’s Blackwell Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1971), the site of several 19th-century institutions in which death was no stranger but rather a frequent visitor. In Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York, Horn resurrects the stories of many who have been forgotten, including the missionary who walked a route between all the island’s facilities (including the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, the Penitentiary, and several hospitals) and talked with their inmates daily; the “lunatic nun” who fought to get herself released from the asylum; and a young girl who received her first prison sentence at 15.

Recently I got to have what turned out to be a surprisingly cheerful email conversation with Horn about death, resurrection, community, and, oh yes, fact-checking.

The Millions: Stacy, I loved your new book. But it’s full of unhappy stories that mostly end unhappily. Can you tell me what drew you to Blackwell Island? What made you think, “I want to investigate this history of the ‘poor, sick, mad, and criminal’ and spend years writing about it”?

Stacy Horn: I desperately wanted to find happy endings. I’m always drawn to sad stories, but sad stories that are mostly forgotten precisely because I hope that by resurrecting these people and what happened, I will bring a sense of peace to their histories, and to the reader.

Blackwell’s Island drew me in because I already had a general sense of what had gone on there. I knew I would have thousands and thousands of opportunities to recover what was forgotten, and to use their stories to enlighten the present.

What I didn’t get was happy endings. Instead, I’m now a passionate advocate for criminal justice and mental health care and welfare reform.

TM: In the book, you follow several personal stories, including those of the Reverend French, who was a missionary to Blackwell Island, and multiple inmates and staff members of the various institutions there. How did you find those stories, and how did you decide on the people whose stories you told in detail?

SH: It’s a good thing that research, and the chase, is my favorite part of writing because this book was my biggest challenge to date. Not surprisingly, most of the records for each of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island (the Lunatic Asylum, the prisons, the Almshouse, etc.) were not saved.

I was able to tell the stories I did through a combination of luck and perseverance. For example, at the New York Historical Society, I came across a letter from a young woman imprisoned in Sing Sing to a society lady who had visited her once. Something about that letter drew me to the inmate, Adelaide Irving, who I ended up featuring in the Penitentiary section of my book. But there were no official Penitentiary records of Adelaide because none were saved. I had to kind of reverse-engineer her story from a number of other sources, and here I was lucky that any existed at all.

Sister Mary, the “lunatic nun” who was committed to the asylum, was an even bigger challenge because there are still fewer extant records for the asylum. Here again I lucked out because I happened to find an archivist nun in Canada who was willing to help me, and the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception turned out to be better record keepers than the city of New York.

Reverend French wrote annual reports, thank God, and a wonderful Workhouse warden wrote an autobiography, as did a survivor of the attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum during the draft riots in 1863.

All these little miracles helped me to recreate what life was like on Blackwell’s Island during the 19th century.

Oh, and remembering researching Adelaide Irving just reminded me of a very proud find I made. After being told that there were no prison records for the Penitentiary at all anywhere, from every librarian, archivist, and corrections history expert I consulted, I found the records for 1883 to 1908 on, of all places,

I was searching on a generic Irish name, because most of the inmates were Irish, and a number of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary inmates popped up. I’m sure I screamed. The actual records are at the State Library in Albany, where I’d already looked, but they were indexed in such a way that no one knew they were there. I went back and let everyone who’d told me that they didn’t exist know, but they weren’t as excited as me. No one screamed. Come on! Nineteenth-century prison records, people!!

TM: I am blown away by the scope and sources of this book. How long did it take to research it? Was there a point when you knew had to stop researching, and start writing?

SH: I never stop researching. When I start writing that only leads to more research. Even when a book is finished and published, I will still keep looking into whatever subject I’ve written about. I still research cold cases and unsolved murders after writing about the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, and I keep up with parapsychological research after writing about the former Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University.

I never let go. I must have attachment issues. But I started researching Blackwell’s towards the end of 2014. I started writing in probably around the summer of 2015, and I was still working on it this year, right up until the moment my editor insisted I “step away from the computer, Stacy.”

TM: I want to talk about how that theme of never letting go appears in your other work, and talk about your other books, but I also want to ask about something as workaday as fact-checking. I know you are very dedicated to doing that for all of your nonfiction. Do you literally go through your manuscripts line for line and make sure everything has a source, a citation? How long must that have taken for this one?

SH: With every book I get better and better at fact-checking. I’ve learned over time that yes, you really do have to check almost every line. It’s insane how, no matter how careful you are, mistakes creep in.

It also takes such a ridiculously long time that knowing how much work I have ahead of me I’m always a little nauseous before I begin. I may even cry a little. It’s hard. It’s daunting.

But then, once I start, it almost becomes a different sort of treasure hunt. Every mistake I find and correct is like a victory against some possible person in the future pouncing on me and calling my work sloppy.

I’d like to add one thing I do that might help other people writing nonfiction. Maybe everyone already does this and I’m the last to figure this out, but I keep a separate timeline for every section in my book. In it I list every fact and where I got it. I started doing this when I wrote the cold case book because I was writing about so many different cases, with so many different “characters,” detectives and other law enforcement personnel, and the cases I picked spanned a half century of time. So I had a hard time keeping track of what happened when, who did what, who said what, etc. These timelines helped me later when I had to go back and fact-check, but it wasn’t the reason I started doing them.

Now I am pretty meticulous about these timelines. I can’t depend on them, the timelines are as vulnerable to error as anything else, but I at least know where to go back and check.

TM: Your first two books, Cyberville and Waiting for My Cats to Die, were definitely memoir. You followed those with The Restless Sleep, which is considered true crime, and your later books (Unbelievable, Imperfect Harmony, Damnation Island) seem to be more investigative and historical in nature.

Can you talk about the arc of your nonfiction writing career, what made you turn from memoir to these other subjects? How is the writing process different for you in these very disparate nonfiction genres?

SH: With the exception of Cyberville, all my books are different versions of the same quest or interests, but a quick back story. I decided at nine years old that I wanted to be a writer, and originally I wanted to write novels. Fast forward to the 1990s, when I started Echo, one of the early social networks, although we didn’t call them that at the time. The New York Times did a brief profile of me, where I mentioned I wanted to be a writer and had an unpublished novel in my drawer.

The next day I got a call from Warner Books who said they’d publish my novel!  Turns out, they didn’t think it was publishable, but they liked my writing and they asked me if I wanted to write about the Internet. My agent said do it. Once you have one book published it’s easier to get another, and then you can try again to write a novel. That led to my first book, Cyberville, and the discovery that by writing nonfiction I could follow my interests and obsessions more directly than with fiction, and with much more satisfying results. And my biggest interests have to do with death and impermanence, and how many stories are forgotten. Every book circles back to this, at least to some extent, even if I begin by thinking they won’t.

Like my book about the history and joys of singing. Who knew that would be about death as well?

I pitched Waiting for My Cats to Die as a memoir, but it was always going to be about my first serious research into death and the fact that we and everyone and everything we love must die. The Restless Sleep was about people who not only had to die, they had their brief time on Earth criminally cut short, and no one was answering for that. My book about the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University [Unbelievable] was supposed to be a fun break from death, but it turns out the lab was established in order to see if they could find evidence for life after death. My book about singing was also supposed to be a break, but our mortality is one of the driving inspirations for composers, musicians, and our audiences. We sing to deal with loss and to reaffirm life. Requiems are among the most moving and profound things I sing.

My books are my attempt to defy death and the fact that most of us will eventually be forgotten, and tragically quickly. It’s a mission that will ultimately fail, but it’s like singing requiems while I still can.

TM: I know this about your books, and about you, that often the theme (seems to be, anyway) is death. I’d like to draw your attention to some of your own quotes. From Cyberville: “As cyberspace grows, it will only become more and more like the rest of the world. Not an even bigger global village, but a bigger collection of villages.” From The Restless Sleep: “I want to resurrect the city’s forgotten dead.” From Imperfect Harmony: “the magic current of potential that comes to life whenever people are drawn together by the astonishing and irresistible power of a song.”

Can I put it to you that your themes are actually community and resurrection and so much joy in life that even the hunt for its existence after it is gone is worthwhile?

SH: Yes. Definitely. Community and resurrection. I’m not religious, so there is no hereafter for me (as far as I know). I think people who are religious think that makes life pointless and empty, and without the promise of heaven or the threat of hell there is no reason to be a good and decent person. But for me, the opposite is true. It makes life the only point, and therefore it’s much more important to use it well, and to be as good a person as you can and not add misery and pain to anyone else’s life. It’s the only one they get.

Spending my time resurrecting forgotten lives, acknowledging past wrongs, feels meaningful to me. It does give me joy, and purpose to the now, and I hope it does the same for my readers. Knowing we’re going to die, how do we want to live?  What do we want to leave behind for the people who will replace us to use?  What do we want to tell them?  I want to tell them: “There was once this girl named Adelaide Irving. She was a lot like you.”

Why I Read True Crime

- | 6

For years I have been unsuccessfully recommending true crime books to friends. The second you tell someone you’ve just read a mind-blowing book about Jeffrey Dahmer that they simply must read, they start to back away from you. The first rule of reading true crime, evidently, is that you don’t talk about reading true crime.

And yet I’m clearly not the only one reading (or watching) it. Books by Ann Rule and Harold Schechter are perennial bestsellers; the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer have led to a resurgence in true crime popularity, with more people reading it than ever before.

The question is, why?

Does true crime permit people to “ventilate their sadistic impulses…in a socially acceptable way”?  Or does it serve as a “kind of guidebook for women, offering useful tips for staying safe”? Or do these stories prompt us to “take a long, hard look at the contexts in which such atrocities arise” and “how we as a society deal with them”?

None of those reasons resonate with me, although that last one comes closer than many. So why do I read (and in some cases, re-read) these narratives that describe such horrifying things, things that scare me and break my heart? Why can’t I look away?

Some of the first true crime books I read were the ones everyone reads: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the narrative of the 1959 murders of a Kansas farm family, is respectable enough to be on many high school reading lists. Likewise, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several others, perpetrated by Charles Manson and members of his “family,” has sold many millions of copies. More recent classics like David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, also don’t require digging to find. Simon’s journalistic account of a Baltimore homicide department and the cases they worked became the basis for the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street (and arguably paved the way for The Wire); Kolker’s investigation into the lives of the women killed by the (as yet uncaught) Long Island Serial Killer was named on many “best of” book lists of 2013.

But I have also read a lot of true crime that doesn’t make the bestseller lists. There was Stacy Horn’s surprisingly gentle The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, about murder cases solved (or not) years after they were given up as unsolvable. Although largely a police procedural, Horn’s book is also notable for the details given about the victims: teen Christine Diefenbach was on her way to buy milk and a magazine; drug dealers Linda Leon and Esteban Martinez were killed while their three young children listened in the next room. There was also Jeanine Cummins’s A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, an excruciating blend of family memoir and crime. When Cummins’s two cousins and her brother went to see an abandoned area bridge that doubled as a teen hangout spot, they were assaulted by a group of men who raped the women and finished by pushing all three of their victims into the Mississippi River to drown. Surviving and crawling to safety, Tom Cummins then underwent a second ordeal when the local police targeted him as the killer of his cousins. Although I don’t really read true crime to learn how to protect myself, I did take away at least one lesson from that book: Lawyer up.

A Rip in Heaven was the first true crime book that I tried to recommend to friends. I’m sure no one took me up on it, and I can’t blame them; re-reading the book now, my stomach is in knots for the victims because I know what’s coming. But I didn’t learn my lesson: when I read John Backderf’s graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, about his high school acquaintanceship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, I wanted everyone to read it. In that book I learned that Jeffrey Dahmer, on a high school field trip to Washington D.C., got himself and a couple of friends invited into vice-president Walter Mondale’s office. All of a sudden it was clearer how Dahmer, in subsequent years, proved to be adept at talking himself out of sticky situations with police officers. How do you not recommend the book from which you learn that? Overall Backderf painted a picture of such a struggling and disturbed young man that, in his preface, he had to tell his readers to “pity him [Dahmer], but don’t empathize with him.”

Empathizing with anyone in true crime narratives is tricky business. Of course you empathize with the victims, although you hope you are never among their ranks. What is even more horrifying is when you recognize something in the experiences of the killers. It has been years since I read Jean Hatzfeld’s oral history of the Rwandan genocide, Machete Season, in which he interviewed Hutus who had been charged with multiple murders of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet I will never forget the chill I got when I read this line: “Killing was less wearisome than farming.” I grew up on a farm, where we worked all the time, and then bad weather would come along and ruin all your work anyway. God help me…just a little bit…I got what the murderer was saying.

This autumn, for the first time, I read Dave Cullen’s multiple-award-winning narrative Columbine, about the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colo.. At the time I hadn’t paid much attention to the shootings—you live in a culture that loves guns, you’re going to have school shootings, I figured—but it gives me pause now to read about the events and the psyches of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, and to read about how involved both their sets of parents were in their lives. I say “involved,” although it is impossible to know, really, how close either boy was to his parents. If you read enough true crime you start to question even basic vocabulary. What does it mean to be involved? Or close? Or a psychopath?

Because I have little boys, the subjects of boys and depression and anger are now all subjects that are on my radar. As such, I followed up Columbine with Sue Klebold’s (mother of Dylan) memoir A Mother’s Reckoning. The day I picked it up from the library I had both my boys with me, and we headed back to the kids’ nonfiction section so they could browse, and I could stand nearby looking over books for myself. As I paged through the Klebold memoir, my concentration was interrupted by half-shouts from the kids’ computer area: “Shoot them!! Come on, kill ‘em kill ‘em kill ‘em, God, you’re a terrible shot, move over and let me do it.” About four tweeny little boys were playing what must have been some multi-player shoot-‘em-up game. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would be listening to these nice little suburban boys chant variations of the words “shoot” and “kill,” while I paged through a book written by the heartbroken mother of a murderer?

It struck me that day that there is no use pretending that violence is something that only happens to the Other, perpetrated by the Other. We are surrounded by it on all sides, even when we try to construct our safe enclaves. Violence is a great exploiter. All it requires is bad luck, a foolish miscalculation, human weakness, or some combination of those factors to make its presence felt. Although monstrous deeds are front and center in these true crime narratives, they are not really about monsters. These are stories about humans: we are messy, we are imperfect; sometimes it is easy to succumb to anger and hatred; sometimes we are the victims, at other times, the perpetrators.

But if there is no use hiding from violence, equally there is no denying the presence of its flip side: compassion. And there is also compassion in true crime narratives: in the doggedness of the cops and investigators who are employed by society to try and solve cases; in the dedication of the legal system workers who prepare for trials for weeks, months, years; not least in the fortitude of authors who research and write these stories to bring them out into the open. All of those people work to restore dignity to those whose dignity, along with their safety or their mental equilibrium or their lives, was taken away from them.

True crime is not easy to read. It is even harder to talk about, and it’s almost impossible to recommend to other readers (without sounding a bit like a prurient psychopath yourself). But if 2017 taught us only one thing, I would hope it is that before you can start to try and solve problems, you have to admit problems exist. We have to tell the stories, and we also have to listen.

That is why I read true crime.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ash Photoholic.

Requiem for a Reader

- | 3

Now that my dad is gone, I find that almost all my memories of him are of him in motion: picking sweet corn so fast in the wet Wisconsin heat that sweat dripped off his nose; climbing nimbly on and off tractors to check on the machinery’s workings; marching in a protest against governmental involvement in agricultural pricing, shaking his finger in a petty official’s face.

My first memory of my father as a reader was him telling me to hurry up; it was almost time to silflay. Being maybe eight or nine at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained that “silflay” meant “to eat.” Did he explain then that the word was used by rabbits, in Richard Adams’s hugely popular anthropomorphic novel Watership Down? I can’t remember, but I think not. I simply filed the word away as another synonym. No one in our household had time to read to me, and no one in my grade school offered any literary allusions. Our school librarian shuttled between several schools, making our library a mostly self-service. So when I finally read Watership Down in middle school, intrigued by Dad’s references, it was a revelation.

You have to love a book about bunnies that opens with a quote from Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. “The stench is like a breath from the tomb.” Goddamn. Compelled by his brother Fiver’s premonition that their warren is in grave danger, practical and action-oriented Hazel decides to strike out with Fiver and several of their friends to start a new warren. Completely caught up in the adventure and Hazel’s plans for his new home, I got lost in the book. I followed him across the English countryside. I followed him on daring raids on farms to add female rabbits to their company. Hazel was a natural leader, and I knew how his compatriots felt; I would have followed him anywhere.

Reading Watership Down was a completely satisfying experience. But it was also a new chapter in my relationship with my father, who up until then I had loved a lot and feared just a bit but mainly just accepted as my father more so than as a person with his own interests. Knowing he loved this book enough to quote from it, to introduce its vocabulary into our vocabulary, made me look at him differently. My strict, Catholic, hard-working father loved a book in which rabbits talked and planned and had adventures. He loved books, in short, that I loved, too.

When my dad died, suddenly but not unexpectedly—a heart attack at age 83,—my sisters and I took turns sleeping at my mom’s house. That first night, of course, with dad’s heart giving out a few hours past suppertime, the EMTs and coroner working past midnight, no one could sleep. I took that first night and lay in the guest room in an adrenaline-fed waking dream state, uncomfortable on unfamiliar pillows. When I closed my eyes, I still saw my father on the kitchen floor, his familiar and work-scarred hands at his sides. More than a decade before I had seen my brother in nearly the same pose, after his accidental death by electrocution on our home farm. Both times I had only the sense that the people I knew, my older and worshipped brother and my dad whom I had helped dig potatoes only a week before, were completely and utterly gone. Their bodies were made strange to me. So I opened my eyes and worried about my mother instead, sad for what I knew would be her loneliness and uncertainty in a future without her husband of nearly 60 years. I also despaired at the thought of the next few days.

I’m told that some people find comfort in accepting condolences from family and friends, in attending a religious service for closure. I am not one of those people. My dad, on the other hand, found meaning in rituals. “You have to respect the ceremony, Sarah,” I can hear him saying. At some point in the endless afternoon, a very nice man whom I didn’t know pressed a small paperback book into my hands and said, “Romie lent me this book and said I had to read it. I did—it was wonderful—and I’ve meant to return it for so long.” He passed the book to me like a sacrament, and when I saw what book it was, Clair Huffaker’s 1973 pulp Western The Cowboy and the Cossack, that was how I received it. When I left the wake I took the book with me. I had originally purchased it for dad, so that seemed about right.

The Cowboy and the Cossack is a thoroughly improbable Western, featuring a cattle drive across Siberia in the late 19th century and, uniting in common purpose, a group of hard-bitten American cowboys and harder-bitten Russian Cossacks. The cowboys and the cattle brave a sea voyage to Russia because the cattle have been purchased by the Cossacks’ home village, and the Cossacks show up to help escort the herd the thousands of miles across Siberia to their home. Along the way they must deal with both the Tsar’s Imperial Cossacks (the Tsar’s toadies, not to be confused with our independent Cossacks) and the vicious Tartar armies in the area, who commit atrocities seemingly at random and scare the shit out of our heroes, which is no small feat considering their hard-bitten natures. When I first read it, I devoured it in about two days and then thought, you know who would probably appreciate this book? My dad, that’s who.

I already knew that he was not opposed to historical fiction. In high school, when he found me watching a video of the television movie Ivanhoe (the 1982 version, starring Anthony Andrews), based on the historical novel set in the Middle Ages by Sir Walter Scott, he’d offered his positive opinion about the lady Rebecca, the daughter of a merchant who offers refuge to the embattled knight Ivanhoe. I knew he would enjoy The Cowboy and the Cossack.

When he finally got around to reading the library copy I’d lent him, I got a phone call, to gush over it and discuss some of its finer points, the way a real reader often has to do with other real readers at the close of a world-altering book. He immediately passed it on to my brother Kevin (a hard-bitten cowboy-farmer type himself), and then I had to take it back to the library. I count the finding and giving of this book to my father as one of my proudest accomplishments. Thereafter Dad asked me to track down some paperback copies so that he could loan them out to other people, and it was one of those copies that came back to me at his wake. When I left the funeral home with my eyes swollen and my feet aching, I put the book in the trunk of my car and left it there, until, months later, finally ready to touch it again, I retrieved it and thought about re-reading it. When I opened it up, there inside the front cover, in his bold and outsized cursive, was written, “Roman Statz.” I touched my fingers to the name as though I might be able to touch the living hand that had written it.

Giving my dad Huffaker’s Western was the greatest reading recommendation I scored with him (though Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, which I had gifted to him a few years previously, was a close second and had led him into a late love affair with that author’s many novels and essay collections). I was never quite able to replicate it again. An attempt to recapture reading lightning in a bottle with another of Huffaker’s novels failed, though he pronounced it an enjoyable enough read. Nothing failed as spectacularly, though, as my attempt to give him Ray Bradbury. I’d just finished my second or third reading of Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I thought, you know, I bet Dad would eat this up with a spoon. So I passed along yet another library copy and waited to hear another rave.

I would be waiting for weeks. I would be waiting, in fact, until I finally had to ask him if he had read it because it was due back at the library. “Oh, you can take that book back,” he told me, dismissively. “That book is too weird for me!” I was taken aback. I tried to ask him a few more questions about what it was he didn’t like about the book. He’d read far “weirder,” in my opinion (Slaughterhouse-Five comes to mind) and enjoyed those. I asked my sister, another Bradbury fan, how it was that this reader I thought I knew so well had so thoroughly rejected one of my favorite novels. What wasn’t to like? The stunning autumn imagery? The perfectly unsettling descriptions of the malevolence underlying the carnival that arrives one dark October night in the hometown of the young protagonists Will and Jim? The truth of the book’s story, wherein everyone old longed to be a bit younger and everyone young longed to be just a bit older? We were stymied. Forever after, whenever I gave him a book, he would say, “It’s not like that weird book, is it?”

What’s really amazing is not that I missed with Something Wicked, but that I ever hit at all. We were very different people. His self-discipline was legendary. Dad always pushed a little harder and thought a little smarter to raise just those few extra crops, make his dairy herd a bit better; I can’t hold a full-time job. He loved to talk to people; I love not to. I could go on.

In spite of our differences, I did still hit—a lot. My father and I shared nonfiction by Michael Lewis and memoirs by Michael Perry (whose first memoir Population 485 was set in Perry’s hometown of New Auburn, Wisc., a small town my parents thereafter haunted until they found and met Perry’s parents, still living on their home farm). I took him books by some of his favorite politicos, Ron Paul among them, and took him books by political affairs authors I considered readable, like Andrew Bacevich. My sister informs me that Bacevich, an author noted on Wikipedia for his “Catholic conservatism” and his opposition to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a particularly big hit.

For a while I would send letters to authors, telling them briefly about my parents and then asking them to sign and return the books I enclosed. One such book was Diane Schoemperlen’s novel Our Lady of the Lost and Found, in which the Virgin Mary visits an author, a woman who lives alone in present-day Canada, and stays for a week of vacation.  The two talk about Mary’s and the author’s respective experiences, share home-cooked meals, and go on mundane shopping trips to the mall. I thought this choice another no-brainer, as my dad’s Catholicism and personal devotion to Mary the Mother of God were two of his defining personality traits. He often put fresh flowers in a vase by the statue of Mary in his bedroom. He credited Mary for interceding for him and helping him find a good wife.

He didn’t read the Schoemperlen right away, but I left it alone; I believe people have the right to read gift books in their own time (or not at all). Years later he told me he had read and enjoyed it, but he didn’t gush. And that was okay.

Sometime in the year before my father died, I was doing the dishes, and I thought, you know, my dad could die. It was a disquieting notion. And of course I’m no fool; I knew that my dad, like everyone’s dad, was going to die. But, if it makes any sense, it hadn’t really occurred to me before that moment. And I think that moment had something to do with Winston Graham’s novel Ross Poldark.

When I took Ross Poldark to my dad, I was going back to the historical fiction well. The book is set in 18th-century Cornwall, and its titular character—man’s man, ladies’ man, man about town—is back home after fighting on the losing side of the American War of Independence. His dad has died, his estate is in a mess, and his fiancée is now set to marry his cousin, all of which makes this pretty typical pulp historical fare. But then Graham does something a little unexpected. He gives us one of the all-time great heroines of fiction: dark-haired, dark-eyed, poor-miner’s-daughter Demelza.

I’ll be honest. I thought dad would enjoy Ross, primarily because Ross always makes the bold, independent decision rather than the prudent one, but the ace in the hole here was always Demelza. If Ivanhoe’s heroine Rebecca was strong-willed, Demelza was downright wild. Within the confines of her own circumstances as a young woman, and one mired in poverty and an abusive family at that, she takes her own steps to better her circumstances. Does she seduce Poldark because she loves him, because she recognizes him as a singular man, or because she can’t go back to her father’s house? A little of all three? Who knows? Who cares. I looked forward to many conversations with dad about Demelza.

But these conversations were never forthcoming. I gave Poldark to my dad in the spring, and that was perhaps unwise timing on my part. After beating lymphoma in his late 70s and enduring more than a year of severe back pain, dad had become more insistent than ever on working in the orchard, sweet corn, and garden. His work discipline seemed only to become more entrenched as he aged, and clearly something in him responded strongly to seeing new things popping out of the earth. Compared to that thrill, reading sometimes took a back seat during the summer and fall harvest months.

I have a work ethic, but it varies from my parents’ in its intensity and focus, and I apply mine to reading rather than gardening. This has led to conflict: I thought my parents were working too hard on their crops, and I didn’t want to feel indebted to them for food I would have preferred simply to buy. In the spring of 2015, I told my father, as he weeded in his raspberry patch, that I wouldn’t be taking any more produce from them. His response, though I know that he heard me, was simply to keep working. After he suffered his fatal heart attack in September of that same year, I would think back to that moment many times and cringe. Even though fiction seemed no longer to be on the list of priorities, he did eventually read Poldark and remarked upon it favorably to me. Part of the reason I had been so excited to give him the book was that the series it started eventually grew to 12 titles in all, and they were all great.  But after listening to his mildly positive review, and after watching him plant and then dig potatoes as though his life depended on it, I knew he didn’t need the rest of the series. Shortly after that I had my unsettling thought at the kitchen sink, starting to try to prepare myself for a world without my father in it.

The spring after he died, my sons and I were visiting my mom with the intention of helping her pick her strawberries. It started to rain, so I said to mom, “Why don’t I tidy up your bookshelves and make room for other books you’ve got just sitting around the house?” She demurred for a while but eventually agreed, and I set about emptying and dusting the living room shelves. I removed outdated nonfiction and mysteries mom was unlikely to read, moved some other books I thought she might like to lower shelves, and made enough room for new titles that had just been strewn about the house. I suggested we all look through the discards, save anything we wanted, and donate the rest to the library.

When I was done, I went to look at dad’s slightly more personal bedroom bookshelf. I wasn’t about to touch that one because it didn’t really need to be cleaned off right then; the living room shelves had yielded enough room for all the rogue books. Also, I’m a magical thinker like anyone else. If I leave those books there, perhaps someday he will come back and read them.

That bookshelf doesn’t hold anything rare or even particularly sentimentally valued. Dad was not a book fetishist like me. On his shelves there is a row of James Michener novels from the time when he systematically plowed through all of them. There are some books on religion and a few more on politics, showing his conversion from pure Republicanism to an anti-war one who read Bacevich. There is Slaughterhouse-Five, and there is a paperback memoir titled Pig Boy’s Wicked Bird that I brought him back from some library conference and never really expected him to read (though he did, and liked it much more than I thought he would). There is a set of Time Life books about the history of the American West. These are brown-leatherette-bound volumes with gold lettering that I know dad paid too much for. He called to consult me on their purchase, when he and mom were visiting an antique store, and I knew the price was too high as soon as I heard “Time Life.” He asked me if he should buy them anyway. I didn’t know if he was seeking my professional opinion as a reader, a librarian, or a bookseller (I’ve worked as all three), but I told him they were almost certainly overpriced as physical books, but if he really wanted to read them and valued having them in a set, he should buy them. So there they now sat, and when I asked mom at lunch whether he had tried to bargain with the antique seller to buy them, she said she kind of thought he hadn’t. “He did read a lot of them, though,” she said.

Even before that day, I had slipped into the bedroom to consider his bookshelf and books several times. I looked at his books, and I thought about my father, who never really wanted to be a farmer, reading Watership Down, recognizing in Hazel the desire to be independent, but to do so within a community that he loved and helped form. I thought about him racing through The Cowboy and the Cossack, enjoying the unlikely friendship between the two title characters, and about him reading Our Lady of the Lost and Found, and his willingness to eavesdrop on that book’s conversations between two women. I looked at all the books on that shelf, and I thought about his deep love of learning and his clear expectation that all of his children, male and female alike, go to college; he never got to go to college himself, and his sisters, my aunts, never even got to go to high school.

When I flip through my memories of my father, I find very few of them are of him actually sitting, reading. He must have done so late at night, after the milking was done, and I was already asleep or out for the night. He was not perfect because no one is. But I know I was loved, and from the moment he explained the word silflay to me, I knew he respected me as a person and as a future reader. He showed me the worlds of words and stories, of possibilities and mutual respect. What a gift for a girl. What a gift for anyone.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Polina Rytova.