In Leah Stewart’s THE HISTORY OF US, a family is torn apart and then reconfigured in 1993 when a plane crash kills Rachel and her husband, parents of Theodora, Joshua and Claire. Eloise, Rachel’s younger sister, is called from the hallways of Harvard and a promising teaching and research career to return to Cincinnati to care for the three children. She immediately packs her things, puts her life on hold, and tries to become a mother, a father, a bread-winner, a foundation. She is successful if the kids are any measure: when the novel opens 17 years later, Theo is writing her doctoral dissertation, Josh has a responsible desk job, and Claire is an aspiring ballerina.
The story begins at a birthday party for the 100-year-old family home; grand and welcoming, the house was built by wealthy and notable men when Cincinnati was as glorious as its nicknames “Queen of the West” and “City of the Seven Hills.” Eloise, who now teaches history at a local college, is uncomfortable with people one-on-one and prefers them in rows in her classes. Her thoughts show her dissatisfaction. Theo, however, loves the house and wants to celebrate its origins; Josh is easy-going and passive in most aspects of life and enjoys the party; and it’s a hidden-agenda farewell party for Claire, who leaves for a New York City ballet company in a few days.
"Leah Stewart seems to love her characters even when they are not especially lovable, and gives them space and time enough to grow and change."
Claire’s departure changes the landscape for the others, and they must adjust to life without her. We find that each member of the Clarke family has a secret, and each voice reveals jealousy, frustration and dissatisfaction. But it is Claire whose hidden choices in the next few months will provide the impetus for change and hope within the others’ lives.
One of the questions that Leah Stewart raises concerns the talents and abilities we have been given and what happens if they are undeveloped or never found. “What if Claire hadn’t come to a dance class and been discovered by the ballet teacher?” Adelaide, Claire’s teacher, answers the question of what she would be if she weren’t a ballet dancer with “I wouldn’t exist.” Eloise considers the question and in some way addresses her own fate by assuring us that it would be “strange to imagine being made for something” and not doing it, but it could be realized in other ways.
Another question that Stewart asks pertains to personal responsibility. She declares that “[o]ld-country societies had it right when they said you owed something to the people who’d taken care of you.” Do we? Are the “contemporary Western types” correct by giving freedom to the children, to do what they want, to ignore the aged? Eloise sees her three adopted children in a very different light when the moment comes for her to put the financially and emotionally burdensome house on the market and to begin living her own life. She blames herself, sort of, for having “to remind them all the time of what they owed” her. There is no real resolution for this problem by the end of the novel, but each of the characters has changed enough to give the argument grace and forgiveness, not rancor and accusation.
Stewart also questions the value of silence. In one of the ongoing arguments with Heather, her confidante, Eloise, tells her, “Silence is strength. Haven’t you ever heard of John Wayne?” Heather laughs at this non-truth and is proven right by the novel’s end when each character must speak, listen and try to understand.
Two scenes are especially lovely. One is Eloise’s addiction to YouTube videos of flash mobs, and she delights in “the communion of the dancers, the gentle conspiracy” and the joyful expressions of the witnesses. There was “no reason beyond the aesthetic. It was a purposeless, beautiful thing.” Eloise’s life has been difficult and not entirely of her choosing, and she’s a bit prickly and unforgiving, but we can warm to this description of what causes her to weep and smile.
The second scene takes place at the Cincinnati History Museum, which houses a model of the city with its neighborhoods captured in different eras. Buildings in the 1940s grouped against modern architecture show the city’s longevity. There are little streetcars downtown and purple houses in the Columbia-Tusculum. The nice undercurrents of tension and longing between Theo and a male friend are played out against the backdrop of a tiny, perfect Cincinnati. Even more perfect is her sigh, “I want to live here,” she says. “The Midwest. It’s like quicksand.”
THE HISTORY OF US stays the course and shows how a family negotiates through a particular crisis. Leah Stewart seems to love her characters even when they are not especially lovable, and gives them space and time enough to grow and change.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on January 24, 2013
The History of Us