Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Elegy by Jeffrey Simpson

Front cover, notice the compliment
by McCullough
American Elegy by Jeffrey Simpson is a  rare  lifetime book as well as  a model of how to write a family memoir so that people who never knew your family will want to read it.  At a concise, 227 pages, this story published in 1997 is one of the best books I have read period.  And if you read  here you know I have read great  books, works by McCullough and more.  I might be smitten because I have not read much about our Pennsylvania home town, and by a contemporary;  although Jeffrey (I feel I know him now but did not before) focuses on Parnassus, which was merged into New Kensington and out in the country around there.  That was not my neighborhood growing up as Mom and  grands had moved up the hills to Catalpa.  My great uncle Bill Austin did live in Parnassus with his wife, Louise for whom I was given my middle name.  Even though Parnassus did not exist as a separate town, old habits and haunts of home do not fade and still today some of us  recognize what was Parnassus.  Sadly today it is desolate and dreary like most of the downtown New Kensington of which is was a  sideboard and has been decimated by cruder inhabitants, low lifer's who are an insult to the old town and once grandly built and maintained  homes now in shambles.  My friend Carlie sent me this book for my birthday with some hints about who was who because Jeffrey did fictionalize names for some of the  people and places. Some needed no explanation, I knew immediately who the Martinelli's were, the syndicate family that kept New Kensington safe for all of us back in our day just as I knew that the Titanic was the old Kinloch coal mine. Some are not changed, such as the drive down Coxcomb Hill, immediately recoznizable to a local, even a transplanted like me.  Carlie was reminded about this work on her visit to a friend in Chautauqua and I am so grateful that she made that trip and shared with me.

Jeffrey Simpson is one superb writer, he knows how to use words, and not just ordinary trite words.  His descriptions reverberate with exquisite language  a tribute to his ancestors and family who told him these stories and to his own experiences for a short time in the old family area.  Although  his parents moved to Pittsburgh in his early years, they returned for family visits each Sunday to Parnassus to the home of two maiden aunts.  His stories begin with an ancestor in 1792, Mary,  aka Massy,  Harbison who is abducted by Indians and sees her family not only murdered but scalped.  I do not recall her story despite learning about the Indians and the early settlers from elementary school at Third Ward.  I understand, from Carlie that the Massy Harbison cabin has been restored and is standing today near the high school.  This flows along like the Puckety Creek and Allegheny Rivers up to his parents' last days in a nursing home. 

Back cover
I disliked having to put this book down, much like I did  reading both O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln and Kennedy books, indicative of how enveloping the book becomes.  It may be available on Amazon today and has been sold in Canada and Australia.  Jeffrey has written for Architectural Digest, or a similar type magazine but he would do us all a favor by writing more personal tales.  Some stories of his family resounded with familiarity of my own, even though they were staunch Presbyterians (aspiring if not achieved WASPs) and mine just as staunch Catholics whom the Presbys considered unknown to God, and the Catholics felt the same about all Protestants.  Hearing his stories about the grand parents farm, and the country setting resounded of my family, especially my aunt Jinx who generally referred to "way out in the country" long after the autos made it a short doable drive. So much similarity in memories is attributable to that wonderful area of New Kensington that made us all who we are today.  But enough of my interludes.

From the first page to the last, the  descriptions and language flow along, like the Allegheny River there along New Kensington.  There are  no duplicate trite words and each description suitably adapts and gives the reader a presence of the personalities and the events.  The family tragedies kept almost secret and not discussed are typical of the times and not unique to his family. 

Selecting a few quotes from this writing is a challenge.  If I were not going to pass this book along to another friend, I would have hilited so extensively on pages for the words worth reading that the book would appear to be printed on a canary not paper.   Here are but a few examples....and some of my impressions. 

Page 70..".life seems to have flowed into the mainstream of Parnassus life, the voices multiply and the pictures called up by the voices are as multitudinous and varied as the quickly moving scenes of a magic lantern show flickering across a sheet hung up in the back parlor for a children's party."  Memories of the past and  our stories arise and can overtake us, there is so much back there to hear, observe and know.

Page 72....".Again, that was all; the black heavy newsprint with its old-fashioned smudged edges on the yellow paper, not much more durable than a soap bubble."    Now that's some description of fading! 

Pg 73 where his mother describes how she dreaded when a bird flies into a window,  it means death is the same prophecy my Mom had and why she would not allow the birds to nest under the awning  eaves of her front porch.  Here is another familiarity of the thinking of the area over generations and amongst people who never knew each other.  I  thought the omen of death when a bird pecked at the window was a Polish legend, not so.

Pg 103.."she shook her umbrella slightly.  It was a grey drizzly day, with leaves stuck like wet newspaper to the slate sidewalks of the old town.  Murky light, which obscured rather than illuminated, filled every corner of the hall like fog."  This book reminded me about the old slate streets, do any exist anywhere anymore?  The old slates were the best to chalk up for a game of hopscotch.

Pg 117  ...."Aspiration and retribution, the fullness of life and punishment for it, were the oxymoronic companions of Western Pennsylvania life."   This is may be my favorite quote from the book and reminds me of my own family.... 

Pg 162..."The next afternoon I walked up to Monticello Hill, where Aunt Myra lived, climbing the worn cement steps, which mounted the bluff behind old Parnassus, shortcutting the switchback road angling across the cliff face.  ... sagged around the top of the hill in concentric circles.  Rows of 1920's bungalows tired as banners hanging in the VFW hall....."  We native sons and daughters will recognize this as the steps to Mt. Vernon whose name he has changed to Monticello. 

Page 219...."I had learned late in life, that you could usually harness anger and only release it for a full gallop when it suited you; it was a good tactic, but, as with many of my perceptions my performance fell far short of my knowledge, ..."  This certainly is admirable to channel and harness anger yet,  I like him do not match performance with knowledge.

 The book manifest qualities I treasure in writing:
      Outstanding literary vocabulary, punctuation and grammar;
      Enticing characters who are portrayed just right, not tediously detailed;
      Historically based;
      Something to which I absolutely relate. 

There it is  a 5 star read *****