Book review: All That Belongs

Mar 9, 2020 by

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Catherine has spent her professional lifetime preserving the histories of others. As an archivist, she gathers the ephemera of people’s lives, bringing order to the sometimes mysterious, sometimes disordered narratives that define the past.

All That Belongs

All That Belongs

At the very end of her career, and heading into retirement, Catherine must face the seeming dross of her own life experiences, making meaning from a patchwork of memories, documents and conversations.

What she discovers, as the protagonist of Dora Dueck’s terrific novel, All That Belongs, is that the past is far more complicated and tragic — and far more beautiful — than she might have ever imagined.

Dueck, an award-winning writer from Winnipeg, Man., is a skilled creator of memorable and complex characters, and Catherine is no exception. As the narrator of All That Belongs, Catherine is drawn sympathetically. An older woman settling uncomfortably into retirement, she is married to Jim, a man both enduring and irritating, who has been called out of recent retirement himself to teach music.

Faced with questions about how to thrive without a work identity, Catherine must reckon with the challenges of caring for an elderly mother and with the unexamined grief her life has wrought, including the absence of any children or grandchildren to populate her retirement.

The initiating incident in All that Belongs is Catherine’s memory of a family dinner when she and her brother, Darrell, are young, and a traveling salesman visits her home, intent on selling a series of books: biographies and educational material that would arrive each month. Catherine’s Uncle Must, a bachelor who lives on the property and farms with Catherine’s father, purchases the series for the kids. This snippet of memory includes a conversation over dinner about the uncle’s oddities: his rigid religiosity, his shyness and piety.

This recollection — of Uncle Must and the salesman and a confrontation over the dinner table — begins a cascade of memories Catherine must contend with, about her strange uncle, her brother’s death and what it means to accept a past she can only partially know or understand.

From there, the novel moves back and forth through time, narrating Catherine’s childhood memories of Uncle Must and his odd behavior, seen through the lens of an adult just beginning to understand more clearly who her uncle was. She also recalls moments in her relationship to a brother that is complicated by his mental illness and substance abuse.

These digressions back through time are countered with Catherine’s struggle to accept her present reality and her realization that she has been uncoupled from a decades-long career that asked her to sift through the detritus of others’ pasts but never her own.

The narrative moves seamlessly between past and present as Dueck deftly creates transitional moments for her protagonist that seem authentic and unforced — much in the way our own memories are drawn to the mind’s surface by a random conversation, an old photo or family documents we’d long forgotten.

For Catherine, whose professional life has been spent divining the past through historical artifacts, the discovery of a small collection of letters, a scribbled note from her Uncle Must to her brother and a short description of her great-grandmother’s death become the impetus for uncovering some of her family’s secrets.

The secrets, while sometimes disturbing and sad, explain so much of Catherine’s upbringing, drawing her closer to her people rather than driving her away, helping her comprehend the nature of family history in ways her professional life as an archivist never had.

That nature, Catherine discovers, is compromised by shame — by an intense desire to erase part of a historical record for which we might be deeply ashamed. For Catherine, that shame extends to her Uncle Must, whose behavior embarrasses her when she is young. She cannot understand his generosity to a rumored “loose” woman; or his fire-and-brimstone proclamations, sometimes made publicly; or the letter he writes to a Mennonite college, accusing it of ruining his niece and nephew.

But she realizes she may also have felt shame for her brother, reckless and addicted before he is committed to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with a mental illness that fractures the family.

Sifting through the detritus of her family history, Catherine sees with new clarity the ways shame also obscured Uncle Must’s story and his early trauma as a son to immigrant parents who were themselves traumatized through unfathomable events Catherine had not known. And she uncovers a deeper relationship than she realized between Uncle Must and her brother, both fighting mental illnesses that alter their ways of being and their ability to understand others — and to be understood.

One mark of a good book, fiction or otherwise, is the author’s ability to make the individual experience universal, to open up the narrative and allow readers to step inside, to see their own world traced through another’s story. That certainly is the case for All That Belongs. I felt my own experiences resonating with that of Dueck’s narrator, in terms of the family secrets we sometimes carry and the ways those secrets — even those deeply buried, those never voiced — shape who we are.

As a life-long Mennonite, like Dueck’s characters, I also know a specific kind of shame that often keeps us from sharing the past or telling its stories.

As Catherine discovers, though, those secrets are part of all that belongs to us. Shamefully holding them close does little to save us — or the next generation — from suffering. We are called to be archivists, to save the ephemera of our past, not to hide or bury it but to bear witness to the unique imprint of our Creator, written into every part of our selves: what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained, what we once knew and what we know now. Our story, in all its complexity, deserves our embrace.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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