The Glen Rock Book of the Dead

"I miss him more, not less, as time goes by." ("The Carpenter", p. 18)

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, a collection of mini essays by Marion Winik, is a gathering of souls. The essays are snippets of 50 lives that have crossed paths with the author in connection to her life in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, the year of their death in the subtitle of each story. Back when we were in the midst of the early days of the pandemic, I had the pleasure of taking an online memoir class with Jamie Passaro who recommended this stunning book. 

I initially started reading this in an e-book format and then found a paperback copy in a quaint little bookstore that smelled of musty books and coffee. Tracing the title on the stack felt like running into an old friend. I like the tiny illustrations on top of the title of each story, featuring some small element in relation to each piece. I normally don't pay much attention to book covers, but this one has a lovely image of a wallpapered wall with framed photographs and a wilted rose bouquet in the right corner. It immortalizes the people in the photos, even though we don't know who they are. 

My favorite essay is "The House," the pink cottage in New Orleans that drowned in Hurricane Katrina. Winik personifies it beautifully, making the piece read like an obituary of a home that was once sanctuary to a family. She compares the house to a "shipwrecked galleon", underwater, where handbag straps twist "like seaweed around the legs of chairs" (p. 94). I love how Winik commemorates the house and all the treasures that made it a home to someone. This is the most unique essay in the collection in that it is in memory of a non-living thing. 

What struck me the most is how the essays are tied together, how they sit in the far corners of the rooms in the back of your brain you keep under lock. They speak to each other without knowing it, developing a secret language of tapping at the walls. A twelve-year-old girl ages to 112 the moment she witnesses her father's life cut short in a motorcycle accident (p. 64), and an old woman with Alzheimer's drifts away, death "determined not just to take [her] but erase [her] altogether" (p. 60). These essays are obituaries of the family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers whose memories pick at the locks in the depths of our brains, waiting to be opened. 


Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, published 1949, is a memoir recounting the life of his beloved son, Johnnny Jr., who died of a brain tumor at age seventeen. It is a deeply personal story of a father's memory of the last year of his son's life, raising many timeless ethical questions in end of life. Johnny amazed everyone in the medical profession by living a full life leading up to the end, surviving multiple experimental treatments at his parents' attempt to "stave off death." He was dedicated to his academics, taking exams, performing his science experiments, gathering the strength to walk at his high school graduation, learning to dance, submitting his college application to Harvard, planning what books he wanted to bring to the country on a long awaited summer trip. 

Having something to look forward to makes for a rich life, makes for a life worth living.

I was impressed by the family dynamics in this memoir. I had the sense Johnny's parents, John and Frances, had an amiable divorce because they took equal responsibility for his care and were loving towards one another even though they led separate lives. John Gunther rented a hotel room and lived near their house in order to see his son regularly, and they shared family meals at the house. John brought scarlet carnations to the funeral because they were Frances's favorite flower. They were a close and tender family who expressed their feelings. I loved that Frances read to Johnny and encouraged him to write in a journal. John Gunther wrote that his son used to leave the journal out in his room as a way of communicating his feelings with his parents when he wasn't able to say them aloud. This was a time of letters and telegrams that is lost in modern families.

It is remarkable this memoir is John Gunther's literary legacy, considering he was a popular journalist and travel writer. Death Be Not Proud withstood the test of time. Despite advances in medicine, the end of life experience remains largely the same and retable.

This is my favorite passage, defining what it means to be human and how delicate life is:

"All that goes into a brain - the goodness, the wit, the sum total of enchantment in a personality, the very will, indeed the ego itself [...] Everything that makes a human being what he is, the inordinately subtle and exquisite combination of memory, desire, impulse, reflective capacity, power of association, even consciousness - to say nothing of sight and hearing, muscular movement and voice and something so taken for granted as the ability to chew - is encased delicately in the skull, working there within the membranes by processes so marvelously interlocked as to be beyond belief. All this - volition, imagination, the ability to have even the simplest emotion, anticipation, understanding - is held poised and balanced in the normal brain, with silent, exquisite efficiency." (p. 79)


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