Told in page-long vignettes, each one with a title of its own, this memoir tells the harrowing story of Linda St. John's dysfunctional "white trash" family. Linda, her two sisters Ann and Alice, and her brother Ralphie grow up poverty-stricken in Southern Illinois. Their father is an alcoholic who, like the father in ANGELA'S ASHES, spends much of the family income on booze.
Mr. St. John, who is at the center of this memoir, is both physically and psychologically abusive to his kids. He beats Linda with a belt; he pummels Ralphie, almost killing him; he verbally abuses Alice and Ann. In one of the more telling vignettes, Ralphie is terrified to tell his father about getting into a serious bicycle accident because he expects his father will beat him once he hears the news. Linda's mother, a Hungarian immigrant with a tenuous command of the English language, treats her children with indifference and neglect, as she struggles to eke out an existence from a meager income.
Needless to say, the St. John children grow up with low self-esteem: "In my family," writes Linda, "no one gave you credit for doin' anything." As a teenager, Linda gets pregnant and then marries her child's abusive father. The family seems trapped in a cycle of dysfunction and lowered expectations --- and yet there are small moments of hope. Linda's father takes advantage of the GI Bill and earns a Ph.D. in microbiology, and Linda, after the birth of her daughter Suzi, gets a law degree.
Despite her father's abuse, Linda obviously loves him. She ends the memoir with his death from cancer. The saddest part of this memoir is not the father's death, however, but the way domestic abuse is commonly used as a means of keeping its victims under control. It's horrifying yet hardly surprising to learn that Linda goes from living with an abusive father to living with an abusive husband. We can almost see her flinching on the page, as if she's expecting the next punch to arrive at any moment. This casual and psychologically devastating violence echoes through generations of the St. John family.
This is a fine memoir of a dysfunctional family, though I'd hardly put it in the same league with Frank McCourt's ANGELA'S ASHES or Mary Karr's unforgettable THE LIAR'S CLUB. Due to the episodic structure of EVEN DOGS GO HOME TO DIE --- it contains more than a hundred small and distinct vignettes --- the memoir never quite explores its themes of violence and love in sufficient depth. The reader, though largely satisfied by this story of a dysfunctional family's horrific ordeal, is left wanting a more coherent, more closely connected narrative to tie all its parts together.
Reviewed by Chuck Leddy on July 31, 2001
Even Dogs Go Home to Die: A Memoir