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I Can Put It Down

During a flight, I usually read a mystery, for time zooming. My sister Laura, a crime/drama addict, provides recommendations. She says, “If someone isn’t murdered on page one, I’m not interested.” She’s kidding (maybe), but the books she praises have multiple plot developments, and just when you’re certain you know who did what, there’s a whiplashing twist.

Laura: “I have a library book you have to read: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. You won’t be able to put it down.”

Since e-pal P also suggested I read this, I checked Amazon for a plot synopsis. A mother is walking with her five-year-old son. When they get to their neighborhood, she releases his hand. He says he’ll race her home. Suddenly, a car looms, hits the child, kills him. No, no, no. I can’t read this. When I tell Laura, she says, “Once you get through the first half, you’ll be okay.” Only half? No, I have children, sons, a grandson. No.

“You won’t be able to put it down.”

I can put it down–this book I’m reading now. Two others immediately appear in my mind in a column beneath the category: I Can Put It Down—although probably there are more.

Ann Finkbeiner’s After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years is one. I know Ann, although I haven’t seen her in years. When my husband Charles and I moved with our sons into a house near Johns Hopkins University, we were invited to a dinner party at a neighbor’s. The neighbor said, “Don’t talk about your children. Ann Finkbeiner (who lived across the street) will be here. Her son was killed in the Amtrak accident.” Later, I’d stand at the bedroom window, looking over at Ann’s house, and wonder how she could breathe. Some years later, after Charles and I moved to Nashville, Ann, a science writer, wrote a book about her son’s death and because I knew her, I bought it. I’d read a few pages, cry, close the book, and I’d think about my children, think if I’d read Ann’s book before having children, I wouldn’t have had them. This is the magnitude of the anguish Ann conveyed.

Kathleen Christison’s It’s All Right I’m Only Crying: A Chronicle of Love and Grief is another. In 2012, four years after Charles died, I wrote an article about Christison’s memoir and ended with:

I understand intimately the loss and pain expressed so exquisitely on the pages I’ve been able to read in Kathleen’s book. But I cannot see through tears. Maybe I should say that what I see through these tears is too much for me to bear. I hope eventually to treat Kathleen Christison’s love story to Bill with the grace it deserves.

Now I’m reading Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making of American Capitalism. Sent to me as a birthday gift by my older son, the book is a 420-page-statement of barbarism in which Baptist passionately depicts the hideous story of the commodification of black men and women who endured bondage, whose white owners tortured, traded, sold, separated them from their families. The elegance of Baptist’s prose, at times poetic, captures the horrifying. The reader hears the clang of metal shackles that chain the men, feels the ropes binding the women, inhales the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves tied together to prevent escape on their march to toil thanklessly, mercilessly, for U.S. capitalism, laying U.S. Empire’s foundation.

I can put it down. I can put it down so often I may be dead before I complete it. I can put it down because it pierces my heart, my conscience. Its truth is damning, a legacy so disturbing I have to put it down.

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Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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