Healing with Jewelweed by Sharon Irish

Sharon Irish works at the Center for Digital Inclusion at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She’s active in FemTechNet too. http://sharonirish.org

JewelweedI ponder the end of life quite a bit, which is to say, I wonder what it all means. That has been especially so this year, with the deaths of two friends from my amazing book group: Jane Hedges, on June 17, 2015, and Nancy Abelmann, on January 6, 2016.

We in the book group miss them very much, so I thought I would take this chance to share some thoughts about a book that we read in January. We lit candles for both of them, and discussed Jewelweed by David Rhodes (Milkweed Editions, 2014).

We mostly read fiction, occasionally wandering into biography, memoir, or history. Within the fiction category, we hew to 20th and 21st century authors, seeking a good story and sympathetic, well-developed characters. Experimental writing, not so much, though if the sentences are exquisitely crafted and the details stellar, maybe.

Jewelweed by David Rhodes

Jewelweed has all that—a compelling plot woven with intriguing sub-plots, very likeable characters who daily struggle to get along with each other within unforgiving systems, and a setting in west-central Wisconsin that Rhodes evokes with fond attention to canned peaches and church suppers, fields and back roads, huge skies and little streams, wild ginger and nettles, big rigs and small motors, and a cast of non-human critters. I dove right in. It’s a world familiar to me, having grown up in Minnesota, yet full of new realizations about living with cystic fibrosis, or being paroled from a supermax prison to cope and work in a small town. While a felony record certainly burdens Blake Bookchester, one of the central characters, it doesn’t define him. He is defined more by his relationships with motors and non-human animals, as well as those he sputteringly builds with people. There is a town full of memories—violent as well as soothing—that erupt or glow in turn, and curious children actively making mischief. Another central character, Dart Workhouse, was, according to her ten-year-old son Ivan, “the fiercest defender anyone could ever hope for.” But Dart undermines herself too. She “lies to keep bad things from happening,” but, at other times, recognizes that bad things “that happened…[do]n’t have to mean anything about me now.” This is a seesaw that many of us ride, hoping for redemption.

I like novels that incorporate our own current, complicated intersections: Rhodes isn’t a pedant or a preacher, but his novel has characters whose racialization, economic status, family histories, neurovariances, and genders matter as they push back against injustices. There are no diatribes against agribusiness or the “ever-expanding penal infrastructure”; on the other hand, the people in Jewelweed hold pretty firmly to their anger about the rich getting richer and bullying those just trying to survive. Survive they do, much to the credit of the land their ancestors stole from the people who were there before them. Nate, Blake’s father, sits under a large silver maple during one of his delivery runs, imagining “the roots of the tree entering the hill beneath him, tunneling down, extending tendril threads into the roots of the corn plants, passing from one to another, following the rows, moving in all directions through the ocean of plants, on to the ends of the earth.” As this 450-page book unfolds, the people within it, like the plants, grow tendril threads that entangle and nurture all of them in quite marvelous ways.

Dart demands to know: “Do you think people can ever be forgiven for what they don’t know about themselves, for paying too much attention to what frightens them and too little to what makes them happy? Do you think there is any future for people who have been so ignorant for so long about everything?” Immersed in this book, I felt rather hopeful that the answer was “yes.” That “what it all means” includes undermining ignorance with compassion and care, as Jane and Nancy did so well, each in her own wise ways.

“There aren’t many good feelings left in this world,” says a waitress at the beginning. That’s true, though I found quite a few good feelings in these pages. It’s been a rough year and I thoroughly welcomed the chance to lose myself in this sensuous gem, flavored with ripe musk-melons.


About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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