I'm spending a couple of days up north, on Lime Lake, with a friend talking philosophy and theology while we fish and I help with some stuff around his cabin. I have read a number of books recently that I would like to review... this is one of them.
Scott Russell Sanders, A Private History of Awe (New York: North Point Press, 2006), 322 pages.
This is a beautiful book. Sander’s writing is graceful and eloquent, even though I did not always find myself in agreement with his theology. It is evident that Sanders has left his childhood faith behind. Yet, and it may seem strange for me to suggest this from a man who questions the deity of Christ, his writings appear to me to be incarnational. Sanders experiences the Creator’s hand throughout the world and especially in other people. In this memoir, Sanders weaves together the story of his first twenty-five years (up to the birth of his daughter) with the present (experiencing the world through his granddaughter and the decline of his own mother).
Although born in the rural South, Sanders’ family moved north when he was just a boy. His father took a position at the Arsenal, a huge military compound in Ohio where they build bombs for the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Later, the family moved outside the Arsenal, to a home with land along a creek (that would later be dammed for reservoir, requiring the family to move again). Here, Sanders began to love nature. Sanders’ father often drank and could be abusive, especially to his mother. As a young boy, Sanders hated his father for how he treated his mother, but in later years he seems to have made some peace and realized there were good characteristics to his father. For one, his father challenged racial assumptions that were common in America during the 1950s and early 60s. The contractor he worked for also saw this and when Sanders was older, they sent his father to Louisiana to help foster peace between African-American and white workers. Sanders himself grew up admiring Martin Luther King, and he relates much of what was happening in his life to national and international events including the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and Vietnam.
As a high school student, Sanders attended a camp for students who showed promise within the sciences where he met a girl named Ruth, from Indiana. The two of them struck up a close friendship that lasted through their senior year in high school and through their college years. (Ruth stayed back in Indiana for school while Sanders headed to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island). While in college, Brown changed majors, leaving science behind for English. After college, Sanders had a scholarship to study in Great Britain while Ruth had a scholarship for graduate study at Harvard, but they ended up marrying and both going to Britain where Sanders earned a PhD, focusing his dissertation on the writings of D. H. Lawrence. Coming back to America, the couple decided to settle in Indiana, with Sanders teaching at the University. This decision went against the suggestions of many of their friends who questioned such wisdom of attempting to become an established author in the Midwest. However, the decision reflected the role of place and the importance of family in the Sanders’ lives.
This book contains many wonderful stories. We learn about how Sanders first encountered and later dealt with racial issues, with the Vietnam War and the possibility of being drafted, with the two-sides of his father, with his place in the created world and awe for nature and a desire to do no harm. Grace is seen throughout these pages. Sanders may have moved away from the childhood faith of his parents, but he retains the awe and is disturbed that awe is often missing from churches today.
There were two places where Sanders got me questioning his understanding of nature or remembrance of an event. Both are minor mistakes, but I will note them. He speaks of the seed heads of poisonous sumac turning brilliantly red in the fall (92), but that plant doesn’t have a seed head and its berries don’t turn red don’t turn red but a grayish white. I think he is referring to staghorn sumac. On another occasion, he tells about going to a room at the university (in Great Britain) to watch the first man on the moon. As they walked to the building, the clouds parted long enough for him to see the waxing crescent of the moon… Early that next morning, as he’s walking back from having spent most of the night watching the moon footage, he also sees the crescent moon setting. If it was truly a crescent (new moon), it would have long set when he headed home. As a said, both of these are minor and really don’t distract from the power of Sander’s prose.
|"A moment of awe" |
before sunrise at Lime Lake