Everybody’s Son and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Greetings. I hope everyone is enjoying August. Warm and smoky weather persists here with most of the smoke coming from the numerous wildfires going on in the province west of us — British Columbia. I only hope firefighters can get a handle on the blazes there, or at least some help from mother nature. They could use some rain.

You see my book assistant, at left, looks concerned, but it’s likely she’s just wondering what we’re having for lunch. Food — not fires or books — is usually her main preoccupation. I’ll be in Vancouver two weekends from now to play in the national age-group tennis tournament. Let’s hope the smoky air quality there improves; they say it’s a bit like Beijing’s air at the moment. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with two reviews of what I finished lately.

Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar / Harper’s / 352 pages / 2017

This was a novel I had on my summer reading list and my first by this author who was born in Bombay, India, and now lives and teaches in Cleveland. I had heard quite a bit about her novels, and this story, which examines race and privilege in the U.S., didn’t disappoint.

In a nutshell, it’s about a nine-year-old African American boy (Anton), who after an incident is taken from his drug-using birth mother and becomes a foster child to a rich, white, U.S. judge and his wife whose son was killed in an accident. The judge is so taken by Anton that eventually he has strings pulled in order to adopt him, giving him the affluent life he never imagined. But later in life when Anton comes to discover the truth about his birth mother and what happened, he’s left to reassess those who’ve meant the most to him.

This novel I thought was well done. It’s a bit like a morality play involving race and class — and a boy caught between two backgrounds as he grows up and goes to university and then law school. It made me get into the characters’ minds about the circumstances right off the bat. I was lured into their world and felt a bit for each of them in a situation that never seems fully clearcut or good guy / bad guy — although the line the foster father crosses to adopt Anton is truly squirm-worthy.

It reminded me a bit of the novel “The Light Between Oceans” as both involve stories about raising a child that is not biologically yours. Though “Everybody’s Son” asks different questions — about one’s identity and being black or white, and rich or poor. As Anton’s college girlfriend tells him: “I can’t decide if you’re the whitest black man I’ve ever known or the blackest white man I’ve ever known.”

It also drives home the point that while one’s parents might love and have the best intentions in raising their kids, they don’t always do what’s right by them — as Anton finds out with his birth and foster parents. If you like such sticky-situation stories then this one is for you. I found the characters felt pretty real even if the construct of the story played out a bit simplistically at times. All in all, it makes me want to try out other novels by Thrity Umrigar in the future, such as perhaps “The Story Hour” from 2014. Which is your favorite of hers?

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie / Little, Brown / 464 pages / 2017

Wow this book has a bit of everything to it — part family memoir, part poetry, part remembrance, part grief book, part essay, part cultural reckoning. It took me a couple of weeks to listen to all of it as an audiobook read by the author, which I’m glad I chose since he seems born to orally narrate his works.

I’m a bit of newbie to knowing about Native American author Sherman Alexie, age 50, who I vaguely remember won the National Book Award in 2007 for his young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Somehow I missed this well-known book, but I recently heard him interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on her CBC program “Writers & Company” and I thought I’d try out his memoir.

It revolves mostly around the bittersweet relationship the author had with his mother and the years he spent growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. At the onset, he replays his mother’s illness and funeral at age 78 in 2015, and then he looks back on his years with her and his siblings. His mother had saved their lives when she quit drinking and supported them with the quilts she made, yet she was tough on them too. Alexie’s father was an alcoholic, and not the breadwinner, and Alexie’s years were often spent hungry and challenged on the reservation. He had to have a brain operation when he was six months old and was bullied at school. But somehow he persevered, and both parents apparently supported his leaving the reservation to attend high school 22 miles away in Reardon, Washington, and he never fully went back.

Sherman Alexie has quite a story, and it’s dramatically told. He doesn’t shy away from anything, whether it’s personal or he’s talking about genocide or prejudices against Native Americans. I thought some parts of the book were excellent and the author’s candid grief, anger, and humor shine through. I sympathized with him over the death of his mother, which has caused him so much pain, the brain operations he’s gone through, his life on the reservation, and the stuff he found out about a couple relatives being raped  (though I was a bit unsure from his narrative whether his mother was a product of a rape or his half-sister was, or both were). Regardless it’s a pretty emotional narrative in parts.

I also liked his poetry that he includes and narrates well. It’s interesting too he talks not only about the genocide done by whites and the damage it has caused, but also is quite highly critical of the violence and harm that Indians do to one another. Particularly he is unnerved when other Natives question his Indian-ness or his tribal affiliation, and he takes to task Indian violence on the reservations.

I gave the book 3.5 stars on Goodreads, which put me in the minority of many who liked it more. My only trouble with his memoir was that he rambles on and on from chapter to chapter (it’s not exactly chronologically told) and it felt unfocused quite a bit and overly long. It seemed to circle around and around repetitively to the same topics and I grew tired of the run-on-ness of it. It was a bit like a marathon and an endurance event (at 160 chapters!), and I wasn’t sure a few times if I was going to finish it, but in the end I managed to. It felt a bit uneven, but still I’m glad I read it; many parts of it I found were quite powerful and he had plenty of interesting things to say.

What about you — have you read this book or author, or Thrity Umrigar’s — and if so, what  did you think?

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16 Responses to Everybody’s Son and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

  1. I’m a fan of Umrigar and enjoyed Everybody’s Son but the ending bothered me a little.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kathy, yeah I remember you said that about the book. It’s a bit of a ponderous ending but it seems (if I’m reading it right) Anton wants to spend more time with his birth mom and maybe bring her back north to be there during his campaign, which I guess I’m okay with. I thought the foster father becomes sort of mean at the end to Anton — which I didn’t think he was during the book so that stood out to me, but maybe he was always a little ruthless and I just didn’t sense it.

  2. Carmen says:

    Of the two, I would like to read the first one, Everybody’s Son. I saw it on Netgalley before it was published, but after reading the blurb I thought it wasn’t for me; I guess I was wrong.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, yeah I’m glad I read it — though it seems people were a bit mixed about it on Goodreads. It’s hard to say sometimes if one will like a book, but I thought it was pretty well done. I’d read another of hers.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    I am enjoying August too. I do not want the summer to end.

    Everybody’s Son sounds very interesting. Race and class are such important and compelling issues. The plot description of this books sounds like it addresses these issues in unique ways.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brian, yes the book’s plot really has a way of putting you in the shoes of others — and race and class get all mixed up in this book. It makes you think about issues. I’m glad you’re enjoying August — summer is truly the best!

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I want to read both of these because they deal with similar stuff to what I am going through this summer. I guess it is an old story that human beings blame their parents for not being perfect and yet love them because they are their parents. Lots of territory for storytelling there, as well as living. I liked your reviews.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Judy! I hope I didn’t say too much on the Umrigar novel. It’s hard sometimes not to tell too much yet still explain the story if you get my drift. That one is a quick read. Parents don’t have it easy for sure.

  5. Michelle says:

    The wildfires and the haze they are causing in neighboring areas is downright scary. I hope they die down soon. That much smoke is not good for any living thing!

    Thrity Umrigar is one of those authors everyone loves and whom I have yet to read. I have heard nothing but good things, and this one sounds like it is on par with her best.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Michelle: thanks for stopping by! Yeah the smoke is dreadful and it seems to get worse each summer now. Sad to say. Yeah I felt Thrity Umrigar’s latest novel moved along well and kept me interested. I will watch for what she puts out next.

  6. Jillann says:

    Thanks, Susan. I will put Thrity Umrigar’s new novel on my reading list. I loved her novel, The Space Between Us, which my book club read years ago.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Oh Thanks Jillann : so glad you let me know about The Space Between Us. I’m impressed by Thrity and hope to read more of hers. Enjoy these late summer days! Someday I hope to make it to the Kingston Book festival in Sept.!

  7. Catherine says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Everybody’s Son! It really did play with perception and judgement. I love Umrigar so would recommend The Space Between Us. It was 5 stars for me.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Another vote for The Space Between Us. Thanks Catherine for letting me know! I think I’m a fan of Thrity’s already. I will put it on my TBR list. Enjoy your summer days!

  8. Both books sound very tempting…although I will probably pass on You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, because I don’t have much patience for rambling, unfocused stories.

    The issues in both books do intrigue me, however. Thanks for sharing…and for visiting my blog.

    I hope the smoky air clears up!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Laurel, yes I guess I didn’t really notice that both books deal with the parent-offspring relationship and racial/class issues as well. The parents in these stories don’t always do what’s right! Thx for stopping by — hopefully this smoky air has got to get better.

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