This weekend I read two memoirs: one from a Mennonite doctor who spent a year in Somalia as a medical missionary and one from a Unitarian Universalist minister who is a chaplain in Maine. Neither of these topics may sound like scintillating reads, but both of them were. The book about the Mennonite doctor will be published soon. When it is, I will blog about it and share the foreword I wrote for the book.
In the meantime, I recommend that you buy or borrow a copy of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here If You Need Me: A True Story. I first heard of Braestrup when she appeared on Speaking of Faith on NPR. Then, when I was browsing in the memoir section of my local independent book store, Kazoo Books, I recognized the title and name, was captivated by author’s face–kind, acquainted with grief but not defeated by it, and capable of laughter. She looked like the kind of minister I would want to have if tragedy struck in the Maine woods–or anywhere else.
The book hit the bestseller list and has been reviewed many places online, so I will focus on an aspect of the book that struck me as being essential to its success–the combination of vivid imagery, complex characterization, and cumulative impact.
Braestrup succeeds in the this memoir partly because she consciously rejects an easy master narrative. She even gives this narrative a name–the triumph of the “plucky widow.” As the wife who was crazy in love with her Maine state trooper husband and mother of their four children, Braestrup never saw the fully loaded box truck coming that snatched away Drew’s life. She shows us the particularity of that pain when she describes the early-morning snuggle on the fateful day, their bodies forming a caduceus. After she gets the news of the crash, she tells us about the white bowl in the stainless steel sink–her husband’s cereal bowl, as normal in its emptiness as the new emptiness is abnormal.
This book may be Braestrup’s first memoir, but she wields her pen with purpose long practiced in other writing projects. Before she wrote this book, she had already published a novel and many other articles in national magazines and even lists Law and Order as one writing credit. The experience shows.
The book includes twenty chapters, each one of them a polished gem. None of them follows a purely linear, chronological path, yet none of them seems chaotic. The master narrative of the plucky widow might have started with how the author fell in love with her husband, his death, her decision to go to seminary because he had wanted to go to seminary, some of her adventures as a chaplain to the game wardens, and a satisfying conclusion underscoring the pluck it takes to do all this and also raise four children.
Instead, Braestrup begins the story “in media res”–in the middle of a search–for a lost child, well into her role as warden, then flashes back to her husband’s death, introduces her four wonderful children as memorable individuals complete with nicknames and bantering dialogue that establishes both the spiritual questions all of them are asking and also gives delightful options adults no longer create. Daughter “Woolie” for example, listens to the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers and sees ten leopards in her mind’s eye. Braestrup knows exactly how much commentary to give and how much to withhold, allowing the reader to feel the pleasure of the humor as though they themselves were in her kitchen.
By the time the final chapters unfold, Braestrop has painted so many pictures of her family, faith, and vocational adventures–dead bodies entwined in the roots of trees, bears using a human skull for a ball, lepers transformed into leopards, a doll named Jesus–that she can rely on our memories as readers. She can pull any one of these out of the air where they whistled past us the first time and weave them into a new visual riff.
She shows us tragedy and miracles, but not the supernatural kind. When a young woman is abducted, raped, tortured, and murdered, Braestrup tells the story in the most profoundly theological way. She and her warden partner Rob sit in the cab of his truck, wishing for a miracle: “We wish ten leopards had appeared in the parking lot and chased the killer away. . . .”
The fact, however, that they do not get the miracle they wish for does not mean no miracle occurs. The demon in the Bible story sneers, “We are Legion.” Braestrup shows us, “No, We are legion,” having just described the way the neighbors, officers, and caregivers descended to help.
Then she says,”These are the only miracles to be had in the story: the cops with their soft hearts breaking, and the fact that this violent sexual predator was nailed by a breastfeeding mother named Love–a righteous thing to contemplate there in the cab of Rob Greenlaw’s truck.”
This memoir reinforces the stories told by Courtney Cowart and Karen Armstrong, also reviewed here. In the midst of tragedy, look for the helpers, look for the love, build community, look for compassion.
On my copy of the book the author holds a red mug outward toward the reader. The hands and mug are slightly blurred, indicating that the photographer was focused on the complexly beautiful face that drew me toward the book. As I laid it down at the end, however, I noticed those hands, that cup. They moved as the shutter clicked. And they move me now as I think of the cup reaching toward all of us. The woman who has prayed “The Lord is My Shepherd” so many times with the fearful and dying offers a cup of compassion that runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow her.
Enjoy not only seeing Kate Braestrup’s face but hearing her voice here: