Today we welcome poet and educator Jo Taylor to Write from the Inside Out. Jo lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is extremely active in the state-wide North Carolina poetry community. She organizes the Sundry Poets readings at Quail Ridge Books (varying Sundays at 3pm–next one is Sunday April 6) in Raleigh and is the author of several poetry chapbooks. We’re very lucky to have her here reviewing Laurel Bragstad’s novel In the Comfort of Shadows, and you’ll get to read more of her book reviews in this space in the coming months. This book’s theme is about facing fear and finding faith, which is one of my favorite themes, especially having watched the movie Frozen four times this week! Enjoy~
Laurel Bragstad’s In the Comfort of Shadows is an apt title, though ironic because the shadows in which the characters have lived have brought nothing but discomfort. The story of Ann Olson and her extended Norwegian family, three generations in Wisconsin, is a story of abandonment and its long-lasting scars.
Each character in the story has been abandoned. In the opening chapter Ann and her siblings are grieving for their parents, Karl, who has just died, and Ruth, who is retreating into the shadows of dementia. Ann and her sister Elise were abandoned by their birth parents and adopted by Karl and Ruth. Anna Muller left her daughters with the trusted Emmett Pederson to return to Austria, her home, to die. Anna had betrayed Emmett’s enduring love by her passion for another man.
Ann’s life is shrouded by these shadows. What was Anna’s illness? Whose name should have been listed as “father” on her birth certificate? Why didn’t Ruth and Karl talk about the adoption? When she decides to bring light to the mystery of her birth and early childhood, Elise offers shock and distress. Ann journeys north into icy territory and meets local residents, some family, who also suffer the effects of abandonment.
Bragstad skillfully places her readers in the stark setting of winter in rural northern Wisconsin:
Snow now filled the footprints she’d made just minutes earlier. The wind blew the snow horizontally, but when she saw the pickup drive by, Ann decided the roads must still be okay. She…went to the porch, and opened the padlock on Emmett’s frozen shell of a house. Facing the barrister, Ann put the little key…into the keyhole. The hinged front fell open toward her, creating a writing surface. Eagerly, she pulled the chain on the lone bulb hanging from the ceiling, sending it and its cobweb cocoon swinging eerily.
Ann loses herself in notebooks she finds in the old bookcase, and the snow continues to fall. Wind rattles the window frames. “With the next blast of wind, the kitchen door flew open.” John, a local businessman and neighbor, shouts, “We gotta get out of here now!”
The author deftly writes everyone’s least favorite person in the story into a sympathetic character. When Elise asks Ann about their cousin Emmett, Ann responds:
…Like Dad always said, Emmett’s poor. The house is run-down, but I actually remembered it. The house doesn’t have any indoor plumbing, and it was cold because he doesn’t put much wood in the barrel stove. He’s afraid of chimney fires…He’s eighty-four, Elise. He’s frail and bent over from osteoporosis, but his mind is still sharp. In fact, I took him for lunch because he didn’t have any food in the house. Then I took him to an assisted living place in town where he usually spends the winter. We’ve had some nice visits.
Ann’s journey of discovery is an adult’s coming-of-age story. The denouement occurs when answers to the questions about her birth and early years are revealed. The falling action is predictable, though not bad-predictable. The reader turns the last page in an agreeable comfort zone: all can get right with the world. Ann removes the blanket that has covered the deep bed of secrets that have haunted her for so long. The message for the reader who struggles with abandonment issues—and don’t we all?—is that confronting the matter allows us to live healthier lives, that letting a damaging past fall away opens us up to new relationships, experiences, and contentment.
Laurel Bragstad’s debut novel was disappointing only because it ended. I look forward to the next story that emerges from her rich Norwegian heritage and the contradictions of geography in the upper Midwest.
(Full disclosure: I went to elementary school with Laurel when she lived in Indiana.)
IN THE COMFORT OF SHADOWS
by Laurel Bragstad
Orange Hat Publishing
Jo Barbara Taylor lives near Raleigh, NC. Her poems and academic writing have appeared in journals, magazines and anthologies. Her most recent chapbook is High Ground published by Main Street Rag, 2013.