Review: ‘The Distancers’ by Lee Sandlin

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Memoir recounts a summer of isolation with two aunts and an uncle

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

10:19 a.m. CDT, August 16, 2013

Living in the Midwest means being surrounded by the ghosts of its past. They appear to us in the forms of faded advertisements on brick walls; elegant commercial buildings in neglected downtowns that now appear crumbled, with windows covered in cheap board; and small farmhouses that have invited the earth inside them, because those who once made it a home are long since deceased.

Those relics are largely what we have left to remind us of the people who settled these Illinois towns with cryptic names such as Edwardsville, the setting of "The Distancers," a memoir by Chicago writer Lee Sandlin that unpeels his ancestors' history to reveal small lives burdened by big hurts.

While none of the revelations Sandlin discovers amount to the sensational drama we're accustomed to in contemporary family memoirs, the writing is so finely tuned to the details of his people that they emerge from the dust with vibrancy, indicting us — as so many ghosts from our past surely do — for succumbing to the collective amnesia of our not-so-distant past.

The central character is the family homestead, a tidy Victoria-era frame built at the turn of the last century by Sandlin's great-grandfather. The home first serves as dwelling for newlyweds Bosh, a foreman at the brass foundry, and Agnes, his wife. After the patriarch dies, Agnes spends her remaining years living with three of her adult children: Hilda, Helen and Eugene. The secrets all three separately carry until their final days become the book's narrative nerve.

Sandlin, a Chicago kid from Ravenswood who is sent to summer with his father's three siblings, awakens to the true selves of his seasonal keepers, and as in any coming-of-age tale, the hints are small and only truly come into focus decades later as an adult. Sandlin writes of his aunts and uncle as if he is finally seeing them with fresh eyes:

"All their instruction in correct behavior, in modesty and practicality and self-reliance and respect, really came down to this: there is never a good time to talk about yourself. Your problems are nobody's business. Your triumphs are nothing special. Never boast, never complain, never reveal, never admit, never take pride, never expect a compliment, never look for sympathy or commiseration or approval. The only thing more offensive than asking a personal question is answering one; the most important goal in life is to keep your distance," he writes.

Of course, the detachment didn't come out of nowhere but from fateful decisions, and subsequent stubbornness against turning back the clock. Unlike today, when slavish self-promotion via social media is normal, the inhabitants of Sandlin's world live under the same roof but in desperate isolation from one another: Helen, a seamstress who hides herself away with movie magazines and at the local cinema; Hilda, who agrees to marry Marty, her married friend's lover, to get him out of her hair; Eugene, a Depression-era migrant who roams the country for work and whose later wartime experiences force him to go practically mute. An entire book could be written about just him. Sandlin writes that his uncle is so petrified of others, he goes so far as to install on his bedroom door a lock that locks from the inside, volunteers for the midnight shift at his job, and devotes all his energy to the one species he best relates to: plants.

Then there is Marty, as close to a villain as can be found in this book. He is Hilda's indolent husband — who earns Eugene's fists — and he is a classic sad sack who is lost to everyone, especially himself.

Sandlin's plain but eloquent prose suits these people. The story unfolds slowly and doesn't take unexpected turns, but instead is a portrait of a time when people did the most with what they had, and like Chekhov's characters, they endured. We recognize them in antique stores as the same faces looking at us from yellowed photographs, their names and occupations and dreams and desires gone.

In "The Distancers," this manifests in a late chapter when Sandlin and his wife drive to Edwardsville only to discover the site of the family home is now a parking lot, the old neighborhood now a light industrial corridor. This is an old American story, but no less sad.

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