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Star-Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul, 28 April 2006

The good, the bad and the sublime

A Private History of Awe

By: Scott Russell Sanders.

Publisher: North Point, 336 pages, $24.

At last, a coming-of-age memoir that graces us with its reflective, mature observations -- one worth returning to again and again. Dividing his memoir according to the elements -- fire, air, water and Earth -- Scott Russell Sanders expresses his awe at creation, along with rage and fear at what's being done to it.


by Brigitte Frase, Special To The Star Tribune

In this time of overheated confessions about sex, drugs and all manner of abuse, it is a relief to come upon a memoir written by a grown-up. Instead of jumping from one cinematically showy episode to another, the reader can amble in the company of an intelligent, reflective voice.

Close to 60 now, Scott Russell Sanders has written often about what he calls "the common life," the ordinary things we all think and do. His own journey through life has been largely uneventful. True, his father was an alcoholic and his mother had rather extreme theories about inner and outer cleanliness, but they loved each other and their kids and stuck it out through arguments and money worries.

Sanders grew up in Tennessee and Ohio, learned to love the outdoors, became an ardent reader, was a somewhat shy and dutiful student, went to a prestigious college, won fellowships to Cambridge, married a girl he'd met at 16, became a father, a professor of English and a respected essayist.

A Private History of Awe explores, in prose as accessible and satisfying as a Shaker table, the growth of consciousness and conscience, the development of his sense of awe at the beauty of the world and of loving relationships. They grow in tandem with a recognition of the responsibility to live honestly, with a regard to the fragile worlds, natural and man-made, that are threatened by greed, heedlessness and violence.

From age 4, when he saw lightning crash into a huge oak tree, Sanders became attuned to the hidden energy that runs through all things and beings, the vibrant "astounding isness of things." He made it his life's work to remain awake to "the skein of miracles" that is our world.

The book's title is somewhat misleading, however. This is as much, or more, the history of anguish and disillusionment over what we do to the skein of miracles. On every page, wonder fights with rage and fear. It is this tension, this inability to stick to the tone of lyric celebration, that makes the book so poignant.

The memoir's four sections are thematically ordered by the elements.

"Fire" is "the holy shimmer at the heart of things," but it also was the fire of napalm ravaging Vietnam.

"Air" symbolizes Sanders' growing interest in science, especially physics. But the air is also filled with bombs, some of them made at the military base in Ohio where his father was an engineer.

"Water" means fishing in the river near his parents' house as well as the ocean he crosses with his bride. But it comes home as a flood when a new dam and its reservoir drown the house and the surrounding lovely old trees.

"Earth" is filled with an astonishing abundance of flora and fauna, whose names the young boy savors. It is "the compost heap of time" from which each generation cobbles its world "from scraps of things demolished." But it is haunted by the ghosts of destroyed forests, butchered animals and slaughtered civilizations.

Through each section, Sanders weaves a continuing and increasingly bitter interrogation of the Bible that he grew up reading. He loves the language still, and his style sometimes echoes its cadences, but he is appalled by its vengeful, capricious God and God's condoning, even inciting, so much betrayal, cruelty and war. If such acts "were the norm, the way of the universe ... then Jesus had sent his followers on a fool's errand." For Sanders, "the world is saturated with divinity," but it is the creation that humans must honor and love, not a creator who may well not exist.

Love is all we have, he believes, to keep us fully human and awake, but it also forces us to confront loss and death. The memoir moves between past and present, as Sanders happily watches his baby granddaughter opening her senses to a new world while he grimly documents his mother's decline. Death is seeping into her, corroding her intellect, shutting down her senses, destroying her sense of self.

This is a book to linger over and return to. Its only, and very forgivable, flaw is the occasional jeremiad, delivered in the strenuous tone of the high sublime. But that only underscores the seriousness of Sanders' effort to love and bear witness to this troubled, lovely planet.

Brigitte Frase, of Minneapolis, also reviews for the New York Times and Salon.com.

©2006 Special To The Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


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