I received an advance reader’s copy of this lovely book:
When I first saw the cover of this book, which will be released on June 1, 2022, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It looks topographical, both scientific and mysterious. It suggests far more than its spare language and amorphous images indicate. According to the author, the cover is a photo by Anneli Epp, taken at Botanical Beach, Vancouver Island, Canada. I could gaze at it for a long time.
And what is that strange title all about? Return Stroke? It’s worth cracking open the book to seek an answer to that question. The introduction says that the title, which is also the title of one of the essays, refers literally to lightning, but that it works well on the figurative level also: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.”
The reader will do well to look for undulating motion in the essays and monograph that follow. There’s a dance between then and now, certainty and uncertainty, wondering and knowing, the author’s story and the story of others in her life, and between places and landscapes in Canada and in Paraguay, the setting of the longer monograph at the end, “In the House of My Pilgrimage.”
Memoir author, teacher, and podcaster, Marion Roach Smith argues that memoir consists of a three-legged stool:
- The answer to the question, “What is this about?’
- Your argument
- The scenes from your life that will be deployed to prove that argument
Dora Dueck did not set out to write this book. Rather, she wrote individual essays, usually for different publications or presentations, and she wrote a longish piece “In the House of My Pilgrimage” that was not long enough to be published alone but was too long for journal publication. The obvious solution was to place recent personal essays and the monograph together. Once assembled, the essays had to speak to each other and find a thread that ties them together. The thread Dora herself identifies is Change:
The essence of life, it seems to me, is change—sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous,
sometimes chosen, sometimes uninvited, but change nevertheless. Growth,
turn, turnover, conversion, adjustment, deconstruction and reconstruction,
loss, gain, whatever name one may use for change, the very process of living
creates a story full of plot.
In the first essay, “Notes Toward an Autobiography,” the author compares memoir writing to cooking and moves through her life in the third person, as Henry Adams chose to do. Eschewing nostalgia and too much subjectivity seems to be built into Dora’s character. She approaches the genre tentatively but with determination to learn about it the way she learned about cooking. Sitting at her desk, she can imagine
What a flurry of peeling and mixing and stirring that
would be! What clouds of flour and heat! Long days of it, and a great
deal of reading—and re-reading—to grasp the genre of subjectivity.
The “notes” she takes in this essay show an exacting, determined, frame of mind. And they illustrate that, like Rudy Wiebe in Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest, Dora will use the materials of her youth, her culture, her faith as ingredients for the ideas that have been visiting her since her youth. She is a poet and philosopher more naturally than a memoirist — someone more happily at home in the first person. Her work therefore has a muscular quality that will satisfy even those who claim to despise the genre. And it will deepen the experience of reading for those of us who love reading about other lives.
The biggest change in Dora’s own life in recent years has been widowhood and moving from Winnipeg to British Columbia. The book is dedicated to her husband Helmut, 1951-2021, and contains one essay about coming to terms with his death and the monograph, set in Paraguay, in which he is vividly alive, young and handsome.
The title essay “Return Stroke” is another kind of memoiristic writing — the biography of a near relative (father-in-law). Papa, as he was called by his family, had an early trauma that influenced his life and all those around him. A bolt of lightning stuck the pioneer homestead his family lived in. The lightning killed his mother and paralyzed him. The author explains that the electrical charges that strike the earth are called strokes, and the light they generate, the heat and the thunder that follows, is called a return stroke. In the essay, Dora craves knowledge of Papa, who died later in life before they had a chance to meet. When she finds his diaries, lightning strikes, and at the end she is able to see in him not just an upright, commanding Mennonite, who built things and raised a family faithfully, but also a fellow writer. “A thought like a jolt zigzagged its way” into her consciousness that, through writing, the two who never met in life, were indeed meeting intellectually and spiritually. A return stroke if ever there was one.
This is a book to savor. Read it carefully, the way it was created. I am quite sure, if you do, that you too will feel jolts of insight.