The Shame of What We Are, by Sam Gridley.
The Dramatis Personae:
His fingers tightened, anticipating the blast. "S-s-sonofabitch!" it came, ''I can't even eat breakfast without --" Art tried to ignore the slam of the fist on the table and the stomp of steps and bang of the front door, though the leftover milk in his cereal bowl rocked back and forth like waves in the bathtub ... his mother threw her towel in the sink and ran upstairs. Only a back part of his brain registered the sound of the bathroom door snapping shut. - The Shame of What We Are, page 5 -
Gary Dennison is a man brilliant enough to build a television or teach in a university, but he is ruled by his own anger, anger that is of his own devising because nothing anyone does measures up to his requirements. Disrupting his family repeatedly by moving from place to place in search of an illusory job he will find personally fulfilling, Art Dennison's father poisons the relationships of his family with his barely repressed rages and vicious criticisms.
One day recently ... Mom had said, "You know, Art, I think we can be happy here. University life agrees with your father. And can you see me as a faculty wife, holding tea parties?" Grinning, she pinched finger and thumb together like she was holding a tiny cup. "I won't tell the snooty types I dropped out to get married." - The Shame of What We Are, page 21 -
Linda Dennison left her own dreams to marry, but what she has ended up with is far from marital bliss. In a time when divorce was nearly unthinkable, she finds herself wedded to a man who feels any mistake or weakness is stupidity, any misfortune or random setback something to blame someone for. Like many victims of mental and verbal abuse, Linda withdraws bit by bit, knowing her unhappiness, but unable to surmount her husband's fury.
How could you keep on the same way after you saw the secret? It was wrong, it was false. If he were in charge they would all be punished. - from The Shame of What We Are, page 67 -
Art Dennison's family is indeed punished, over and over, by his father's perpetual angry impatience, and his mother's fearfulness. In third grade, Art realizes that he hates his father for his thoughtless rages, and is shocked to find out that his mother understands his feeling completely.
The Shame of What We Are follows Art's young life from his fifth year to his preparation for college. As his family life crumbles, Art has no one to turn to, seeks refuge in books, and blames himself for both his failure to find solid friendships and his inability to fit in.
After his parents' divorce, Art is taken to visit his grandparents back East over Christmas.
Besides craving a girl like Bayta Darell to love him, he wanted Grandma to fix cocoa every night, he wanted to know the people who hid behind the glowing windows and frozen porches, he wanted to be bounced in Aunt Betty's arms like her baby June, he wanted fame and glory and endless helpings of mashed potatoes with gravy. But the glass pane was chilly to the touch, a reminder that he might always be separated from the genuine world even when he was on the inside. - The Shame of What We Are, page 133 -
The Shame of What We Are is a thought-filled, well-written book. Sam Gridley is a talented author who doesn't get bogged down by the tragedy of the Dennison family, but rather maintains Art's winsome attempts to hold on to an optimistic viewpoint as he grows older. Art still wants to love both his parents, wants to find friendship and happiness, and is determined to figure out the convoluted paths his life has taken.
This book evoked a powerful reaction from me, so much so that I had to read it twice to understand why.
Gary Dennison was a thoroughly hate-able character. His selfishness and penchant for blaming everyone but himself made me wonder why Linda would have stayed with him past the first instance of his temper. He made me wish for ninjas to show up in the story and chop him into bologna. Linda's submission revolted me. Where were her parents, and how had they raised her to put up with such a man?
I grew up in the same time-period covered by The Shame of What We Are, and I had to remember what that time was like in order to put my thoughts in perspective. In those days, divorce was considered to be a shameful choice of action, a failure of character, a reason for ostracizing. A wife had little recourse (except for "Going home to Mother") for escaping a marriage; she was completely dependent upon the breadwinner-husband financially. Linda Dennison, being dragged across the country repeatedly, would not have even had the liberty to grab her children's hands and walk out the door. Where would she go, knowing no one, having no haven?
Growing up in our small rural community, I was raised and surrounded by strong women who would have put up with Gary Dennison's anger for just about the space of time it took to pick up a cast iron frying pan. All the kids I knew could cook dinner for the family by the time they were fourteen, and many had to. Hollywood, and soon after, television, presented a different mold: mommies in dresses and high heels playing geisha to their husbands when they returned from work, daddies who always knew best, children who could afford to be goofy kiddies until they were graduated from college. The characters of The Shame of What We Are had already bought into that scenario, and let that charade run their lives.
My reaction to the story is a compliment to Gridley's ability to make characters seem real, and I admire his skill in telling what is a sad story, with much unhappiness and full of pain, and yet ultimately infusing The Shame of What We Are with hope, and triumph of spirit.
Read it, you'll want to take Art Dennison home with you.