Review: Lee Martin’s From Our House a sad, wise, lovely memoir.
From Our House: A Memoir by Lee Martin. Bison Books, 192 pp.
Lee Martin’s From Our House has an honored place in my aesthetic pantheon and in my heart. I’ve read it four times over the years. It concerns his growing up with a rageful father, who had lost both hands in a farming accident, and a meek schoolteacher mother. She stood by, helpless to stop her husband’s harsh treatment of their son, unable to protect young Lee from Roy Martin’s mean words and brutal whippings.
Despite its easygoing narrative, rich in plot yet also feeling searchingly essayistic, this portrait of one troubled family possesses a riveting force. You sense that the surface events unfolding as Lee grows up reflect his family’s deep inner struggle to transcend its patriarch’s physical and psychic wounds. Martin evokes his experience in scenes while also slipping into the action musings by his older and wiser self. For one price, we get two points of view—that of the sensitive, difficult boy and that of the wiser adult he became.
This dual quality, layering the story and enriching the reader’s understanding of it, exists in Martin’s narration even when the retrospective writer’s presence is subtle. In this passage, set when Lee expects a beating from his father for refusing to attend his grandmother’s burial, you can also feel the story’s deep sepia tones, timeless air, and bygone setting:
I heard my father’s voice break, and it startled me. I pulled my head out from under my pillow and saw him lying on his back, his eyes closed, his hooks clasped on top of his stomach. “When I die,” he had said, as we had left my grandma’s wake, “everyone will come just to see if they bury me with these hooks.” It was, perhaps, the first time I understood that my father, so much older than my friends’ fathers, might die while I was young. And though he was the man who whipped me, he was my father, and freedom from him would carry with it an everlasting guilt, a regret that we hadn’t found a way to love each other more.
It was impossible for me to snuggle in close to him, because of his hooks, but I moved as close as I could and felt the heat from his body.
“We have to go,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. In a while, he would ask me if I was ready, and we would rise and go to the funeral home. But for the moment, we lay there, the two of us alone, while the rooster crowed again and my father said, “Good morning,” as if we were just then waking to a new day.
Quiet but resonant, this scene shows his father not as a hook-armed monster but as another suffering human—and as the kindly man he tried to be.It wasn’t until my third reading of From Our House that I realized consciously how much I identify with it because of my own boyhood. I cannot help but think of my parents, my siblings, and myself when I read it. In my memoir, Shepherd, I write about growing up with a father scarred by his own father. Dad was 14 on the day he came upon him, violently slain by his own hand. Dad wasn’t an angry man as a result, though he told me once that he hated his father for years, but he was a depressive and isolated one. He seemed utterly apart from others; I had no sense he was moving through life with us. I should have blamed my grandfather for my father’s ways, I suppose, but that’s what I came to know intellectually rather than what I felt.
Throughout From Our House, the boy’s experience and the writer’s understanding show how pain, regret, and anger—helplessly entwined with love—can ripple forever inside people from dysfunctional families. This can be passed on, an enduring emotional legacy—like the gift of a happy childhood, though of course different in effect. Mary Karr summed up this reverberating blow in her memoir Lit (reviewed):
When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function as an adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.
What makes this fate so painful is that sufferers know old wounds can warp them in the present; their burden clouds when and how and whether they act and express themselves in the world. How can you be properly and maturely assertive when your pain and your parental example want aggression—or passivity? But no matter how justified negative emotions feel, any adult who experiences them knows they’re toxic. This dilemma is captured in the Cherokee-cum-generic-Native American parable “The Wolf You Feed,” which has gone viral in various versions, this one from The Daily Kos:
An elder Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too,” he added.
The Grandchildren thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I saw my parents grow as the years passed. People can and do change, if they try and if they don’t. Most people do fight the bad wolf, and sometimes they lose, but I think on balance they prevail. Just so, Martin depicts his ill family slowly begin to heal and become whole. This is where From Our House amazes in its particulars and in his telling. Martin credits his mother, who may have been too submissive toward his father, but, sweet and steadfast, she never gave up:
Where would we have been without her eternal optimism? Though she had stood by, silent, while my father had whipped me when I was a child, she had at least always believed—and somehow had made me believe—that our lives were worth more than the shabby way we often treated them. She lacked the courage to confront my father’s rage or to escape it, but she endured, and by doing so, she slowly began to win the long battle for goodness that was the history of our family.
A top-five memoir. Written with palpable tenderness and love for both parents, From Our House awes me with its graceful execution, from its perfect pace to its lovely prose. Sad, wise, and inspiring, this hopeful story testifies to love’s resilient power.
You know Martin is lucky to have had his parents, not cursed, just as we’re now lucky to have his work.