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Lisa Ohlen Harris

Against Sentimentality

A truth-telling memoir.

Nine months before Joe Wilkins was born, his parents briefly escaped the harsh, arid landscape of Eastern Montana, known as the "Big Dry," for an idyllic camping trip. His mother tells of fishing and swimming in the clear lake, of late nights around the campfire. This is an origin story replete with a mess of trout and a cooler of Rainier beer. And, reminiscent of another origin story, the couple finds their garden "crawling with rattlesnakes. Snakes sliding through the tall grass, snakes curled in the outhouse, snakes draped like question marks across the rocks." His father sliced off snakes' heads with a shovel; his mother carried a stick to fling snakes out of her path. Decapitated snakes were piled away from the camp to keep the flies and stench at bay.

Wilkins ponders why his mother's storytelling includes the snakes. Why not tell of the sweetness and leave out the shadow? Because, he realizes, "To tell the story without snakes would be dishonest. Snakes complicate and foreshadow, shift like a crawling wind, hide in plain sight." This young family will grow—they will receive a longed for second son and later, a daughter. Their joy will be full—until, years later, sorrow overtakes them. The children will be left fatherless. Clearly, this origin story must be told with snakes.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how a Christian worldview can exist in writing that is not necessarily Christian, while our own literature often lacks the bite and angst our worldview ought to embrace. Flannery O'Connor observes, in "The Church and the Fiction Writer," that many readers of faith prefer to enter into a false world of simplicity—with an overemphasis on innocence. O'Connor writes, "We lost our innocence in the Fall and our return to it is through the Redemption, which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite."

When he was nine years old, Wilkins lost his father to cancer. His mother raised him with the help of her elderly father. One night, Wilkins and his brother stay up late playing cards with their grandfather. The grandfather tells of another card game long ago: he nearly killed a man but was saved from committing murder when his own uncle cold-cocked him. Great father figure, right?

Late that night the grandfather stops the card game. "It's time," he says. The boys follow their grandfather out to the sheep shed, where a ewe is straining to give birth. Grandfather washes his hands and rolls up his sleeves, then kneels beside the ewe. "Talk to her," he tells the boys. The grandfather reaches gently into the birth canal and takes hold of the unborn lamb while the trusting ewe "lays her head on the straw, closes her eyes to the pain":

My grandfather pulls and pulls—and the lamb slips into his hands, hands that nearly took a man's life, and there's blood and after-birth steaming on the straw, on his arms, everywhere. He runs a finger through the lamb's mouth and sets it near its mother's warmth.

The "innocent" lamb is born into a broken world, into the very hands of a near-murderer. This stable scene is anything but sentimental, and I think Flannery O'Connor would approve. Isn't this the stuff of a biblical "hero"? Hands capable of taking a life can also be the means of grace.

Fathers tell stories—at least mine did. My brothers and I loved to hear Dad tell how his sister once dared him to paint not the barn, but the pig. My father reached his paintbrush through the barnyard fence and glopped red paint across the back of the pig. When my grandfather arrived home, he saw the pig dripping with red and imagined blood rather than paint. Dad's story always ended there and I was left to imagine the conclusion: my grandfather coming close, smelling the paint, and falling into gales of laughter.

The thing is, my grandfather was an alcoholic. When he drank, he became angry. The end of the story most likely unfolded differently than I imagined. My father's storytelling leaves out just enough to protect the reputation of my grandfather (who was sober for the last decade and a half of his life).

We do the same with Bible stories, sanitizing and simplifying—removing the story from its context. The story of Noah becomes a sweet means of counting by twos instead of a story of apocalypse. Our Sunday school lessons on confronting our giants stop with the victory. But we grownups know that the boy-king will one day take wives and concubines and even kill to get yet another woman who catches his eye. Why are we afraid to let our heroes fail? We forget that all heroes do fail—except one. Our patriarchs point ahead and beyond themselves. They tell a larger story.

Wilkins may or may not be a Christian, but his memoir does so much that Christian writing should do—and that Christian readers should appreciate. Wilkins doesn't sentimentalize the long, slow road out of boyhood without a father.

The year his father dies, Wilkins is taken under the wing of a compassionate teacher. Mr. Hollowell drives him home, takes over the spring planting, and teaches the boy to flood the parched fields with water so the crops will grow. "I am delirious with his attention. I take seed. I sway and rise." Back in the classroom, Wilkins blooms under Mr. Hollowell's challenges and approval. On his tenth birthday, Wilkins travels to the Hollowell family home along the Yellowstone River, where he walks and fishes and sits by the fire sipping hot cocoa while Mr. Hollowell strums the guitar and sings:

And so, when Mr. Hollowell moves away at the end of the year, I will more than need someone to take his place, someone—no, some man—to throw me the football and hand me a book, to fill the space made gaping not by my father's death but by Mr. Hollowell's merciful and immoderate attention.
I will look, I still look, I am looking for a father.

Wouldn't such a realization drive Wilkins to the Father who will not fail? The evangelical reader will want the answer to be yes and amen, clearly articulated in a prayer to receive Christ. But Wilkins, like Flannery O'Connor, doesn't tie up his story tidily:

In childhood, when I could not sleep, when the world troubled me and set my mind to racing, my mother would tell me to say a prayer, to pray for those I love until sleep took me—for when it did the angels would finish my prayers. "The angels," she would say, "cannot refuse a sleeping child." But I am no longer a child, and I do not believe all I believed as a boy.

Wilkins rejects his mother's sentimentalized expression of faith. And yet his writing is haunted by the disappointment and pain and longing that mark our slow participation in the sufferings of Christ. Biblical cadences echo across the pages.

By the final chapters in this memoir, Wilkins himself is a father—and he knows he, too, will fail: "I have heard the sound of my own son's grain-of-sand heart; that tidal surge and lunge; that whoosh and susurrus, a slight wind whispering that some warm and ripping storm is building, has begun."

A child born into this world is not born into innocence. We are born, helpless, into the hands of killers. We yearn for resurrection, for all things to be made right. We want the happy ending, and we want it now. So we do our best to fast-forward through the ugly bits, in art as in life. What we end up with is sentimental stories and sentimental faith. We can learn a lot from a writer like Joe Wilkins.

When Wilkins asks for more stories about his father, his mother tells of her courtship. She speaks of carefree youth, of two-dollar champagne poured into soda bottles, of driving together until sunrise. She tells the story isolated from the larger narrative of her life:

She was caught up yet in memory, a bride on her happy, hopeful way to the rainy Pacific Northwest, but I was watching her step through the dry stalks of a drought-killed field, my little brother crying on her hip. I was wondering how the world goes so wrong, how this mountain of joy ends up in acres of sun-blown dust.
Theodicy, believers call it: the wondering and explaining, the wrestling with what one must understand as God's justice, with the fact that a good and knowing God has chosen for some of us this, and for some of us that, has said, I give you life. I give you life. And you, I give you pain.

The reader who does trust God may resist Wilkins' honest questions, but they are questions well worth asking. Wilkins continues, "Can we trust any God fickle and vicious as this? And what are we to do then with our fathers and our mothers, our first and mightiest gods?"

Wilkins is not afraid to remember the snakes and the pain. He holds his many failing fathers and himself up to the light and finds every one wanting. In this way his worldview is absolutely biblical, as is his storytelling.

We settle for too little when we avert our eyes from the failings of our heroes and suppress our hardest questions. As Flannery O'Connor observed, Christian readers are too easily satisfied with sentimental tales that don't descend into the valley of the shadow of death. Without the valley, our happy endings ring false and empty. Isn't our happy ending yet ahead?

Here Wilkins gets it right. You won't find in these pages a perfect king or father or even a perfect God. What you will find in The Mountain and the Fathers is authenticity in the valley of the shadow and occasional glimpses of light.

Lisa Ohlen Harris teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Southern New Hampshire University. She is the author of The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving and the Middle East memoir Through the Veil.

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