A Son Coming Home

By Virginia Taylor

March 1, 2015

A Son Coming Home

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder by Steven Harvey 

Steven Harvey, in his marvelous memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, is on a journey to discover and understand his mother who committed suicide in April, 1961, when Harvey was eleven years old. Reflecting on her act, Harvey observes that it “had exploded in my life like the flash of a camera at close range, darkening everything around me and casting me into blindness, and when the light returned she was gone. . . . She was there and she was not, and there was no getting her back. Ever.” Missing are his memories of her, of his being with her, and this: “I could not, and this is the heartbreaker, hear her voice. All of this—what do I call it?—this mothering was gone, wiped out by her death.”

One might be tempted to say, “Cue the tissues.” But one should resist. Harvey is neither manipulative nor sentimental on his tender and determined journey into the past: he hopes to uncover not only who is mother was, but also to rediscover who he was, besides being the “bright” and “beaming” young boy his mother wrote about in letters. And just as important, Harvey wants to know who they were together.

Like an explorer, who comes across a trunk of maps, I set out on a journey into “terra incognita,” along a trial of startling but familiar particulars, until I came upon a land that for all of its strangeness felt like home, an exotic Never, Never Land that had been waiting for me all the time.

Harvey begins this journey by closely examining scraps of “mother” memorabilia collected in a wicker basket: a photo of a young girl doing acrobatics in her Kansas backyard, another of her standing next to a trike, and one of her as a woman sitting between her two sons on the sofa. There’s her straight “A” high school report cards, a pencil sketch of his mother’s face drawn by his father (used on the memoir’s cover), and even an ominous piece of lace sewn to a black ribbon.

Harvey examines each item for clues, at times even using his own magnifying glass to read more deeply into the never-changing lines around his mother’s eyes, the tightness of her mouth, the shadows in the background until finally realizing that all of these artifacts are little more than “lifeless mementos mori, tattered and creased souvenirs of our loss, filled with little more than the emotions that we bring to them and drained of the life of their subjects.” The photos tell him nothing about what led to his mother’s suicide; instead of giving him her story, all they seem to do is to create Harvey’s own narrative of her. “Even when she was not afraid, I saw fear. Even when she was not trembling, I supplied her trembling. Even when she was not consumed by thoughts of death, I shrouded her.”

Who really was Bobbie Reinhardt Harvey?

Asking this question, Harvey realizes he must read his mother’s letters, over four hundred of them penned between 1945 to 1960 and sent to her mother whom she considered a confidante. Letters that Harvey spreads out and organizes on his pool table, reading one or two a week. Letters that provide the “substance” and “narrative” which the photos never could on their own. Letters that eventually allow Harvey to sense “an order in my past, the unfolding of a story that included a family in some netherworld described in a narrative drafted by my mother, guarded by my grandmother, and left for me to tell.”

But Harvey does more than just create a narrative of his mother’s life. Using lines from the letters like needle and thread, he slowly weaves together his scraps of memory and photos while laying it all against a backdrop of American life in the 1940s and 1950s, a life that includes feminism, sexism, and what it meant to be mother and “housewife” in the age of Leave It to Beaver. He includes the damage done to families while absent husbands and fathers climbed the American corporate ladder. He explores the prevailing psychiatric treatment for depression including electroshock therapy, while still describing with awe and wonder the excitement of Sputnik and of watching Mary Martin in the TV musical Peter Pan. With this rich context, Harvey reminds us that the story of suicide is also one that is inseparable from the culture of its day.

Harvey also deftly knits in one more element that is equal part American memorabilia and wonder, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a 1952 collection of ten thick encyclopedic books that his mother enjoyed as much as Harvey did. Writing about acquiring these volumes, Harvey says:

It was, my mother explained in one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to my grandmother, a purchase as much for her as for her boy. “I have really been enjoying it. I’ve been studying the subjects of music and art so far,” she explained. “That is how I’ve been spending some of my evening while Max is away.”

These volumes were not only filled with facts. Each also contained child-like questions from “The Department of Wonder”: What holds the stars up? Does the earth make a sound as it rotates? What happens when ink dries? What is the sound of everything happening at once? Harvey uses these questions as “guides,” including at least one in each of the twelve chapter-like sections of the book all the while asking his own: Who is suicide? Who am I? Why did my mother’s letters lead me there? What happens then? All these queries send him on exploratory journeys back to now unfamiliar hometowns and places like The Palmer House in Chicago, until Harvey finally goes back to the park where his mother shot herself.

By the memoir’s end, readers will have been engaged in an expansive narrative that travels deeper and deeper into the mind of a mother and son, both child and grown man, until at last, “Her words mingle with mine as I write so that we have, at last, the conversation we need.”

One last note. Steven Harvey’s The Book of Knowledge and Wonder goes beyond most memoirs as it also serves as a craft lesson. Forever a writing mentor, Harvey shares in the latter sections how the structure of the book came to hold such a collection of memories spanning decades, of more than four-hundred letters, of Wonder questions, of ideas about growing up American. How does a writer contain, organize, narrate, and assemble these pieces into a book of just over two hundred pages? Harvey doesn’t keep his organizing device—the mobile like those of Alexander Calder—to himself, but instead shares it as part of the story itself, becoming a metaphor for describing the mothering he yearned for: “Our two languages . . . hung aloft on the hooks of my interrogations find the point of support that allows me to arrange the shattered mosaic lying neglected on the floor, and lift it into the sky.”

And the wonder of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is that we readers feel lifted as well by the genius, the pain, and the love of a son coming home.

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder by Steven Harvey

$12.02 Paperback | $9.99 Kindle | Buy Now

 

Ginny Taylor

About the Reviewer:

Ginny Taylor lives and writes from northeastern Ohio where she also teaches writing.  Her work has appeared inSoundings Review, This I Believe: On Love, Hiram, U.S.A., 10th Anniversary edition of Kansas City Voices, em: A Review of Text and Image, and S.A.L.T.  Her essay "Odds and Ashes: A Litany for Wounded Voices" received a Best of the Net nomination by Jet Fuel Review in 2013.  She holds an M.A. from Hiram College in Interdisciplinary Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Ashland University. Ginny is also the founder of Women of Wonder, a company devoted to helping sexual abuse survivors thrive beyond their trauma.

 

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