THE HOUSE WHERE THE HARDEST THINGS HAPPENED: A Memoir About Belonging
Kate Young Caley
Kate Young is five years old when her father disappears from his family's small-town New Hampshire home for several days. Eventually, it becomes clear that he has suffered a nervous breakdown after learning that he has throat cancer. Kate's mother is pressured into having him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Once he is released, he begins treatment for the cancer he had tried to keep hidden from his family.
Because her husband was unable to work, Kate's mother went to work as a waitress at a restaurant that served alcohol. Despite the fact that she herself did not drink alcohol, she was voted out of the Church of God congregation where the family worshipped, and her husband left with her. Kate and her older brother continued to attend Sunday school --- her younger brother was still a baby --- until the teacher, in front of the class, used Mrs. Young as an example of a sinful woman and a hypocrite. The entire family then stopped attending church.
This is obviously a lot for a young child to handle, especially one who loves church and feels a strong sense of community and belonging there. In the coming years, she will also have to contend with her father's deteriorating health (he was pronounced cured of cancer but suffered from other ailments) and society's treatment of her homosexual brother. Eventually she marries, and she and her husband find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.
All of this sounds fairly straightforward, but that's not the way Caley wrote this book. It's written, rather, as a series of stand-alone essays, which is helpful to know before you start reading. That's an advantage I did not have, and I found it increasingly difficult to get a handle on the chronology, flow and details of Caley's life. I had too many "Huh?" moments, and I had to reread way too much to figure out what exactly happened in what sequence, when I began writing about the book.
For the most part, Caley writes in a literary style that some readers will find appealing. But I thought she was at her best when she recounted ordinary, everyday events in concrete terms that left a lasting impression: the spontaneous choreography of two waitresses at work --- Kate and her mother --- in a wonderfully vivid chapter "The Hi-There Cafe," or the unexpectedly profound conversation with a mechanic in "Bob's Transmission," another visually rich chapter, or "Found," in which she describes the Boston neighborhood where she and her husband lived as newlyweds and followed a priest right to the doorstep of the church that would eventually become their own.
But then there's "the house" where all of those hard things happened. Even if house is a metaphor representing Kate and her family, you expect the house to become a character in the book in much the same way that, say, a geographic region takes on the qualities of a character in other memoirs anchored to a particular location. But the Youngs' house never quite reaches that stature, either literally or metaphorically. Maybe I expect too much from titles, but I do think it's important that they accurately reflect the content, even if it's an otherwise great title. Which this one is.
Is Caley's book worth reading? Yes, especially for those who have been wounded by a church --- which unfortunately applies to a lot of people. Caley's story will also resonate with readers who have struggled with a family member's chronic illness or another member's homosexuality, as Kate and her family did. But if you end up with more than a few questions even after you reach the last page, don't be surprised.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (email@example.com)
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