HARKENING: A Collection of Stories Remembered
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Reviewed by Rolf Gompertz (Copyright 2001)
Author of Abraham, The Dreamer/
An Erotic and Sacred Love Story and retired NBC executive
What is harkening? According to the dictionary, harkening
means: to listen attentively; to give heed.
It is what Carolyn
Howard-Johnson has done. She has harkened
to the experiences of her life. She has harkened to the
individuals who have peopled her life. She has harkened to her
heart, mind, soul -- her inner voice. And she wants us to
harken, so that through her stories, we may recognize their
truth and find our truth in our own stories.
Howard-Johnson has written
a most extraordinary book.
"HARKENING: A Collection of Stories Remembered" is neither fact
nor fiction, but reality, HER reality.
"This book," she explains
in her Introduction, "is made from my
own memories and the harkenings of others. I liken the process
of recording them to a child who listens to adult conversation
with nuances that she doesn't quite understand; she must fill
out the meaning with her own experiences."
The author asks, "Isn't a
writer's truth more truthful than
fact?" She calls her stories, "creative nonfiction."
Her stories resonate
within our own hearts with their truth.
They speak to us, even before we read them, by their titles
alone: Legacy, Mama's Depression, The Message, Child's Play,
Neighbors, Summerville, The Music Lesson, What Isn't Lavender,
Milk Glass, Portrait of Sisters, Remembering Winter, Gunnison,
Through a Window, Grandmother's Slip, Ski School, House of
Neglect, A Different Generation.
Like each one of us,
Howard-Johnson wants to know how she came
to be who she is. She looks to past and present relationships
with various family members, going back generations; to
encounters with friends and strangers; to moments with her
husband, children and grandchildren.
The author travels back
and forth in time and place - to Utah
where she was born and raised, to the Los Angeles area, where
she lives now, and to other places that have figured in her life.
Though connected, each
story also stands alone. In each case,
Howard-Johnson goes in search of the truth that lies at the
heart of some person, some encounter, some experience. She
uncovers layer upon layer and plummets secrets, until she
arrives at some precious gem of truth.
Howard-Johnson is a
remarkable writer and a fine story-teller
Her stories are as simple as her language - deceptively simple.
Every word has been carefully chosen and every story is a
polished gem. Some books can be scanned, others can be
devoured. "Harkening" should be read word for word, sentence by
sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. It should
be read leisurely. To do so is to rediscover the all but
forgotten pleasure of reading.
Howard-Johnson writes with
eloquent journalistic clarity,
economy and simplicity. She knows how to capture the essence
of things in a few telling sentences:
"I must write
this story because Mom-Bertie expects
it of me. It is not really my story. It is not really my
mother's either. It is her mother's story. And her mother
before that. In a way, it belongs to us all, though it may not
even be entirely fact."
'THE MESSAGE': "I learned
about life and death in another
time, another place. I remember it almost as vividly as if it
'PORTRAIT OF SISTERS': "A
generation is the great divide.
There was almost twenty years between Bertie and Trisha. Bertie
was married and gone from the house soon after the younger
sister was born. So when Trisha found a Kraft-colored box while
helping the older one clean out closets, it was an opportunity
for closing the gap."
"Winters in Utah can be bitter."
'GUNNISON': The Main
Street of Gunnison is Highway 89. It is
still marked "Main Street" on the street signs and "Highway 89"
on the map but it is really no longer a main street and
certainly no longer a highway."
'A DIFFERENT GENERATION':
"I once said that I never wanted to
live my mother's life. Yet somehow I keep trying to do just
Howard-Johnson has an
uncanny eye and ear for tell-tale facts,
definitive feelings and penetrating remarks. Like an artist,
selecting the right color, she finds the fitting word, the
striking image, the memorable phrase:
'CHILD'S PLAY': "The
mountain dominated the view from my
window. In the winter, I would peek out through the panes
crusted with sparkling white geometry against a sky the color of
'THE MUSIC LESSON': "The
road to grandma's house wound like
unspooled thread along the base of Mount Olympus. It followed
the feminine contours of the foothills, jumped a creek when
necessary, ran a route that traced the boundaries of old farms
"The shirred wind sharpened my reaction,
left my eyes bare to forgotten memories…
"The children in the schoolyard looked like children from a
remote decade. No color. A black and white film. The wind
blew their voices away from me."
'THROUGH A WINDOW':
"Thoughts move about, like the breeze in
'SKI SCHOOL': "Her eyes
were both filmy and bright like star
sapphires. They looked as if they knew more now than when they
could see. Her body was like a snap bean, all the seeds and
organs of life evident under the skin."
What is most extraordinary
about "HARKENING: A Collection of
Stories Remembered" is that the author shows us that the
seemingly ordinary moments and events of our lives are anything
but ordinary. She shows us that they contain kernels of deep
meaning and profound truth -- if we allow them to speak to us,
and if we will harken with courage, honesty and love.
"HARKENING: A Collection
of Stories Remembered," by Carolyn
Howard-Johnson, is a profoundly meaningful and enjoyable book
written by a skilled, honest, extraordinary writer and story-teller.
Rolf Gompertz is the author of eight books, including,
"Abraham, The Dreamer/An Erotic and Sacred Love Story," a
provocative, biblical novel about Abraham, his wife, Sarah, and
"the other woman," Hagar.