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Review of Carolyn Howard-Johnson's Harkening - by Rolf Gompertz


Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered

by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

ISBN 1591295505

Published by AmErica House  © 2002


What is "harkening"?  According to the dictionary, harkening means:  to listen attentively; to give heed.


It is what Carolyn Howard-Johnson has done.  She has harkened to the experiences of her life.  She has harkened to the individuals who have peopled her life.  She has harkened to her heart, mind, soul -- her inner voice.  And she wants us to harken, so that through her stories, we may recognize their truth and find our truth in our own stories.


Howard-Johnson has written a most extraordinary book.  HARKENING:  A Collection of Stories Remembered is neither fact nor fiction, but reality, her reality.


"This book," she explains in her Introduction, "is made from my own memories and the harkenings of others.  I liken the process of recording them to a child who listens to adult conversation with nuances that she doesn't quite understand; she must fill out the meaning with her own experiences."


The author asks, "Isn't a writer's truth more truthful than fact?"  She calls her stories, "creative nonfiction."


Her stories resonate within our own hearts with their truth.  They speak to us, even before we read them, by their titles alone:  Legacy, Mama's Depression, The Message, Child's Play, Neighbors, Summerville, The Music Lesson, What Isn't Lavender, Milk Glass, Portrait of Sisters, Remembering Winter, Gunnison, Through a Window, Grandmother's Slip, Ski School, House of Neglect, A Different Generation.


Like each one of us, Howard-Johnson wants to know how she came to be who she is.  She looks to past and present relationships with various family members, going back generations; to encounters with friends and strangers; to moments with her husband, children and grandchildren.


The author travels back and forth in time and place -- to Utah where she was born and raised, to the Los Angeles area, where she lives now, and to  other places that have figured in her life.


Though connected, each story also stands alone.  In each case, Howard-Johnson goes in search of the truth that lies at the heart of some person, some encounter, some experience.  She uncovers layer upon layer and plummets secrets,  until she arrives at some precious gem of truth.


Howard-Johnson is a remarkable writer and a fine story-teller  Her stories are as simple as her language -- deceptively simple.  Every word has been carefully chosen and every story is a polished gem.  Some books can be scanned, others can be devoured.  "Harkening" should be read word for word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.  It should be read leisurely.  To do so is to rediscover the all but forgotten pleasure of reading.


Howard-Johnson writes with eloquent journalistic clarity, economy and simplicity.   She knows how to capture the essence of things in a few telling sentences:


"LEGACY":  "I must write this story because Mom-Bertie expects it of me.  It is not really my story.  It is not really my mother's either.  It is her mother's story.  And her mother before that.  In a way, it belongs to us all, though it may not even be entirely fact."


"THE MESSAGE":  "I learned about life and death in another time, another place.  I remember it almost as vividly as if it were yesterday."


"PORTRAIT OF SISTERS":  "A generation is the great divide.  There was almost twenty years between Bertie and Trisha.  Bertie was married and gone from the house soon after the younger sister was born.  So when Trisha found a Kraft-colored box while helping the older one clean out closets, it was an opportunity for closing the gap."


"REMEMBERING WINTER":  "Winters in Utah can be bitter."


"GUNNISON":  The Main Street of Gunnison is Highway 89.  It is still marked "Main Street" on the street signs and "Highway 89" on the map but it is really no longer a main street and certainly no longer a highway."


"A DIFFERENT GENERATION":  "I once said that I never wanted to live my mother's life.  Yet somehow I keep trying to do just that."


Howard-Johnson has an uncanny eye and ear for tell-tale facts, definitive feelings and penetrating remarks.  Like an artist, selecting the right color, she finds the fitting word, the striking image, the memorable phrase:


"CHILD'S PLAY": "The mountain dominated the view from my window.  In the winter, I would peek out through the panes crusted with sparkling white geometry against a sky the color of newsreel battleships."


"THE MUSIC LESSON":  "The road to grandma's house wound like unspooled thread along the base of Mount Olympus.  It followed the feminine contours of the foothills, jumped a creek when necessary, ran a route that traced the boundaries of old farms and homesteads."


"REMEMBERING WINTER":  "The shirred wind sharpened my reaction, left my eyes bare to forgotten memories...

"The children in the schoolyard looked like children from a remote decade.  No color.  A black and white film.  The wind blew their voices away from me."


"THROUGH A WINDOW":  "Thoughts move about, like the breeze in the room."


"SKI SCHOOL":  "Her eyes were both filmy and bright like star sapphires.  They looked as if they knew more now than when they could see. Her body was like a snap bean, all the seeds and organs of life evident under the skin."


What is most extraordinary about HARKENING is that the author shows us that the seemingly ordinary moments and events of our lives are anything but ordinary. She shows us that they contain kernels of deep meaning and profound truth -- if we allow them to speak to us, and if we will harken with courage, honesty and love.


HARKENING:  A Collection of Stories Remembered  is a profoundly meaningful and enjoyable book written by a skilled, honest, extraordinary writer and story-teller.




Rolf Gompertz is the author of eight books, including, Abraham, The Dreamer/An Erotic and Sacred Love Story, a provocative, biblical novel about Abraham, his wife, Sarah, and "the other woman", Hagar. The paperback may be browsed and ordered at , ,  or ordered from iUniverse's toll free number 1/877/823-9235 or any bookstore. Mailto:



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