Book review: ‘To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts’
Special to the Daily
Short stories have always had a unique way of captivating readers in a manner that longer fictional works often cannot, but it is a genre that requires skill and finesse on the part of the writer.
A recently released collection of stories achieves that special balance, pulling the reader in with an overarching universal theme that is then contemplated and examined in the 10 individual tales.
In “To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts,” Caitlin Hamilton Summie creates a beautiful literary embodiment of moments in time, lending an evocative voice to the dissemination of shared experiences within the human condition.
Those Who Came Before
The title of the book gives some indication of the thread of commonality that runs throughout the stories, which touch on family histories, collective memories, and the value of tangible memorabilia permeating our lives.
Summie draws from that singular drive within all humans to look back toward those who came before, thus fueling our desire to keep our ancestors close by remembering their stories. Deeply held friendships, awkward childhood allegiances, the expectations of a well-meaning parent versus the dreams of a child are simply some of the subject matter that she tackles in her carefully crafted stories that ultimately revolve around family bonds and the rich and often tempestuous places inhabited within any familial structure.
Her compelling writing reminds us of the power of a well-delivered narrative, and the role of storytelling in preserving the past. In the highly diverse stories that make up “To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts,” there are all varieties of crippling betrayals and conciliatory harmonic convergences, and throughout, Summie weaves in reflections on some of the many universal principles with which all humans grapple.
When the balancing force in a dysfunctional family is lost, what happens to those who are left behind? Who gets to choose what is the right way to say goodbye to a lost loved one? Does grief need to be public to be acknowledged? What sin is so great that it erases all mention of a person from his or her family history? Who owns a written history — the person who lived it or the person who wrote it?
Summie examines these topics and many more in the literary vignettes that are akin to the distinctive movements that comprise a larger musical composition.
The first story, “Tags,” takes place in middle America during World War II, where the women wait for their men to come home, and their children turn the distant war into a template for their games. The shadow of the war seeps into their lives, becoming more real to them than the fathers who had gone away to fight it.
“Growing Up Cold” pulls the reader into a Minnesota winter, where the frigid cold looms like a living being, and a funeral becomes the backdrop for an uneasy truce between the family’s men.
“Points of Exchange” dives into the infamous anonymity of New York City, a throbbing and thrilling beast of humanity that can pull unwary inhabitants under. It is a place where people go to live a life on the crest of a wave, where each dweller is hoping to ride that wave as long as possible before it breaks apart on the shore.
“Brothers” examines what it means to be independent against the impossible reality of a life within a broken body. Family rivalries and the inexplicable bond of brothers makes this a deeply poignant story.
“Patchwork” looks at the nature of family heirlooms and the stories and secrets they carry, and ponders the inevitable hidden corners within even the most staid family units. It touches on the universal nature wherein each generation is destined to not comprehend the machinations and motivations of the next.
“Geographies of the Heart” focuses on the grand cycles of life, the yin and yang of death and birth—while one generation is slipping away, thin as a thread into the ether, the other is billowing into busy fullness, and the pinch-point where the two connect vibrates with expectancy and meaning.
“Motherly” is a contemplative reflection of a mother’s own journey through life, and how it is reflected in her daughter’s life unfolding behind her.
In “Fish Eyes in Moonlight” there is the promise of new life, and the considerations of a life well-lived, even as it slips into oblivion, becoming little more than an afterthought to others.
“Taking Root” is the perfect resolution to the thematic material throughout Summie’s book. She pulls her literary lens back, focusing on the communal strength of a neighborhood. Like weeds clustering together, humans have a better chance at surviving if they work together.
Ultimately, Summie’s stories emphasize this shared humanity, and there is something accessible, recognizable and timely for everyone.