Book Review: “The Wreck,” by Cassandra Jackson; “Everything All at Once,” by Stephanie Catudal; “Building,” by Mark Ellison


    Cassandra Jackson was in her 30s when she first encountered the expression “replacement child,” and it took her breath away. Coined by psychologists in the ’60s to describe a son or daughter conceived to fill the void after another child’s death, “the term is the closest I will come,” Jackson writes in her anguished, affecting memoir, THE WRECK: A Daughter’s Memoir of Becoming a Mother (Viking, 307 pp., $28), “to a name for what I am.”

    The puzzle of her identity had confounded her since her childhood in small-town Alabama, when visits to relatives were met with long looks and “She just like ’em,” uttered in hushed, awed tones. Only little by little did her parents, frozen into silence by grief, reveal the tragedy behind the stares: In 1960, 12 years before Jackson’s birth, a car accident ended the lives of her father’s first wife, his mother, his sister and her husband, and his 3-year-old niece, San, for whom Jackson is named. Unlike her older sister, who she eventually learns has a different father (more secrets), Jackson is long and lean, the spitting image of her paternal kin: “an Alabama Black girl with knees the color of burnt newspaper.” Both a redemption and a reminder — “a replacement for too many dead to count” — she grows up bowed by the weight of all her family will not say.

    Jackson deftly intertwines the story of her search for the truth about “the wreck” with her infertility struggle; she longs for a baby, she comes to realize, in part as a “replacement child” for a new generation. Along with the trauma of her family’s past, racism shadows every corner of her narrative. One specialist, Black herself, tells Jackson that infertility is a white woman’s problem and she just needs to have more sex. And when she tracks down Jim Crow-era news accounts of her family’s accident, which also killed a white couple, the stories erroneously place blame on the Black driver. Says her dad, incredulous: “They done got this all wrong.”

    Jackson had feared her search for answers might cause her wounded father pain; in the end, it shines a healing light.

    “The melody of my adolescence, remastered.” That’s how Steph Catudal describes the sound of her husband coughing in EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE: A Memoir (HarperOne, 240 pp., $28.99). Her father had died of lung cancer in his 40s, when Steph was just 14, and hearing her beloved husband, Rivs, suddenly start hacking away one night in June 2020, three months into the pandemic, jolts her terrifyingly back in time. Still, Rivs is a professional endurance athlete in his mid-30s. He’s in almost superhumanly good shape; neither he nor his wife can imagine there’s anything seriously wrong.

    Thus begins a harrowing tale about endurance of a different kind. Feverish and weak, Rivs is soon hospitalized; he tests negative for Covid, returns home and gets even worse. It will be weeks before doctors finally diagnose him with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma, and he spends the next four months teetering on the edge of death.

    Catudal holds down the fort at home in Flagstaff, Ariz., trying to keep the couple’s three young daughters from worrying and herself from falling apart. She writes movingly about the agony of knowing her girls may be bound for a loss like the one that once derailed her: “To be the daughter of a dying father was an abyss.” She also addresses an under-discussed parental dilemma: How much of your own fear should you show your kids? “I didn’t know if it was damaging or freeing for my children to see me experience the fullness of human emotion,” she thinks, after breaking down in front of them one night, “but it was all I could do.”

    Catudal has lived through plenty. She floundered after her father’s early death, abandoning her Mormon faith when prayer failed to save him, then falling into destructive relationships and substance abuse before finding love with Rivs. Unfortunately, a tendency toward muddled therapy-speak (“What a blessing and a curse, to learn in an instant that pain is the intercessor of empathy”) dilutes the power of her story. “What is it about love, anyways?” she writes … twice. Still, your heart goes out to her.

    One of New York’s most sought-after carpenters, Mark Ellison has plied his trade in the homes of Robin Williams, David Bowie and Woody Allen, among other notables. But don’t expect BUILDING: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work (Random House, 304 pp., $28.99) to offer up much in the way of celebrity secrets. (Although there is this: When he met Woody Allen in his kitchen, Ellison said, “Good morning,” and the director just “turned slightly to the side and remained that way until I passed through.”)

    What the book does provide is a pleasing amalgam of tales, personal musings and quirky but useful tips for living. Now in his 60s, Ellison has honed his skills for over 40 years. Whatever his wealthy clients and their architects dream up, he can deliver, but he is refreshingly unimpressed with himself. Ellison writes, “Those of us who build the homes you see in a magazine finish many a day covered in grease and dirt and blood.” He continues, “A private palazzo might boost your confidence when the dinner guests swoon, but it can’t make your children love you.” What Ellison values is the work itself: “It really doesn’t matter how good a person is at something; what matters is the meaning they derive from its pursuit.”

    Other tips? “Ask for what you want. No one is likely to offer it.” Cleanliness is overrated: “Most of life passes us by when we avoid mucking about in dirt, or dough, or dark thoughts.” And stick-to-it-iveness pays off: “Steady, well-guided practice in almost anything is worth the effort.” Ellison says his book is meant as inspiration “for people who are interested in doing anything well.” Since he “can’t remember my last boring day,” it seems smart to listen.

    Kim Hubbard, the former books editor at People, is a freelance writer and editor.

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