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Book Club Thu Aug 29 2013

Book Review: The Distancers by Lee Sandlin

distancers-cvr.jpgFamily history is its own unique animal--stories about love, loss and mayhem at funerals, weddings, or just dinnertime resonate more deeply when you're related to the participants by blood. (Of course, we're living history every minute, though that rarely occurs to us in the moment; the march of time is something that happens to other people.) In The Distancers, Lee Sandlin's wonderful ode to decades of familial lore, the reader experiences the narratives of Sandlin's clan, but I'd be surprised if they didn't recognize their own family members among the many portraits he draws.

Originally published in twelve installments in the Reader, The Distancers introduces us to four great-aunts and uncles in the preface: Hilda, Helen, Marty, and Eugene. They live together in Edwardsville, Ill., in a home that's been in the family for generations, and the young Lee Sandlin visits them every summer. (I was instantly transported back in time to week-long summer trips to my grandparents' home in Missouri.) Back then, he knows nothing about them; the rest of the book traces their journey, and the journeys of those who came before them, over a span of time that begins in 1850 and ends in the present day. We're taken everywhere from a late nineteenth century family-run hotel and saloon, to Sacramento Avenue in Chicago, to the battlefields of World War II.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way in which major world events are viewed through the prism of one family's experience; for example, tradition held that Sandlin's great-great-great grandfather, Peter, was so removed from the rest of the world that he never knew that the Civil War took place until he heard church bells ringing one morning in the fields, celebrating its end.

We follow along as Sandlin tries to peel back the layers around his childhood summer caretakers. Eugene, in particular, is a figure steeped in mystery--he creates a world of self-imposed isolation for himself, riding the rails as a hobo and devoting years to the creation of a sprawling, magnificent garden outside the Edwardsville home. But Hilda, Helen, and Marty's stories also defy the more straightforward aspects of the marriage-and-children arc that typifies the life stories of many of the other characters we meet. Their lives, seemingly simple and largely circumscribed by the boundaries of Edwardsville, seem out of the ordinary. And while Sandlin makes it clear that they would brook no personal discussions, this book is a reminder that everyone's life is an amazing story. And to go and ask Grandma whatever happened to Uncle Joe.

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