Monday, March 4, 2019

Placemaker--A Review

Placemaker by Christie Purifoy
A Review

When I first received this book, I was prepared to read something about a place like Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek, Wendell Berry’s Port William, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswick.  This book is not like those.  Placemaker is a coming of age memoir or journal in the format of 12 stream-of-consciousness chapters based on the author’s observations and readings about homes, trees, and gardens found in places where the author has lived.  These chapters encompass specific homes in which she lived, trees she encountered and identified after reading tree books, and gardens and their noted designers.  As a fellow tree lover, I enjoyed reading of her awakening to the value of specific types of deciduous trees.  As someone who loves houses, I also appreciated her excitement following the purchase of her first home, a condo in Chicago, and final home, Maplehurst, and the challenges she experienced after purchasing that 19th century house.  The author writes of using the places we are in to make a difference in the lives of others, and the changes such places might make in us.  In the book, she intertwines her life at Maplehurst with her life at the earlier places she has lived. 

If I had not promised to review Placemaker, I probably would have stopped reading after the first couple of chapters.  I found it difficult to relate to this woman who can move from place to place with no thought of the financial cost.  A woman who in daily living, is never ready to explode, never ready to tear her hair out, never ready to curl up into a little ball and quit, and whose children never drive her to distraction, never make messes, never interfere.  Had I known what I know now, I would have begun reading at Chapter 8 and skipped the earlier chapters.

The chapters move forward and backward in time from Maplehurst, back to her Texas origins, to Virginia, to Chicago, to Florida, and back to Maplehurst, but not in a linear manner or even a circular manner, but a haphazard manner—at least to this reader.  The author would write about Chicago for instance, then Maplehurst, then Chicago, then Maplehurst, then Chicago and so on, back and forth and perhaps even mentioning another city/state in the same chapter leaving me confused about time and location.  An additional confusion is when the author mentions, merely mentions, burying “acorns in the ground with her son” (acorns that never grew), thus alluding to a death that I assumed I would learn more about.  (Fortunately, the death never occurs).  And like that death or the buried acorns there are thoughts that are either left unformed or based on false premises. These thoughts might be interesting if explored, but they are tossed out and discarded.  Toward the end when someone does die, the imagery (the decedent’s boots standing near the door, his laundered shirts folded in the laundry basket) starts to bring the emotion of loss alive, but then the scene shifts elsewhere.  That episode is confusing because it’s the first time we hear about siblings.  It’s almost as if the author is afraid to do more than mention her family and explore her own emotions, perhaps because she is afraid of hurting herself or others.   (Yes, we don’t want to hurt others, but being too safe forfeits communication and names can always be changed.)  I picked up a book by another author (Rachel Devenish Ford) at about the same time I was writing this review.  The other author’s writing sang to me.  The other author self-published, had much less education,  and no writer’s group.  She didn’t have a PhD, but she had emotion in spades.  Her life, her husband’s life, her children’s lives and how they affected her were spread all over the pages.  Placemaker barely touches on the greatest moments of the author’s life (marriage, childbirth, church life, home ownership) and the greatest people in her life (husband, children, parents, siblings).  In one of the later chapters she mentions Elena’s babysitter.  I thought perhaps Elena was a neighbor, but it bothered me that I did not know.  I skipped back through the pages and discovered that Elena was the author’s daughter.  So little was written about her children that I did not know their names or the name of her husband or even the author’s name.  The names of Rachel Devinish’s three children are cemented in my mind (Kai, Kenya, Alif), along with her name Rachel (Rach) and her husband’s Chinua.  I still cannot remember the names of Christie Purifoy’s children with the exception of Elena.  Or her husband.  For the most part, the carefully composed set of 12 chapters in Placemaker left the author’s feelings buried and never touched my emotions. 

The author has read books about trees and tries out those authors’ ideas on us when she personifies the ground, the land.  For her (and an author she read), the land both dreams and desires like a sentient being. She learns that the land where she lives cannot accept some plants; Some plants won’t thrive there.   But does that mean that the land may “still yearn for the forests that sheltered indigenous tribes and greeted European colonists”?  Perhaps, there is more to the land than its pH, minerals, and constitution (sand, gravel, clay, climate).  But your flowers, vegetables, and trees will do better if you use science to determine varieties and culture.  Palm trees will not survive winters in Pennsylvania and tulips will not bloom in the tropics.  Even while the author thinks the land may yearn for forests, she still admires and discusses cultivated gardens near Maplehurst, Chicago, and elsewhere. 

At Maplehurst, the house needs repairs.  It is falling apart, literally.  Both an insurance examiner and her own observations tell her that.  But what does this author do?   She ignores the imminent destruction of her prized home and focuses on the outdoors.  Hardly a responsible action, but she does make the repairs by the end.

From her Pennsylvanian perch the author writes that “the wilderness is a place without paths.”  This author loves gardens, so maybe she has never hiked in a forest where she would have encountered animal paths, paths left by perennial streams, or short paths delineated by fallen timbers.  The author’s point is that without paths we are doomed to wander aimlessly.  But, are we?  Doesn’t God always direct?  And in the Pennsylvania wilderness, even in the absence of paths, there are streams to follow and streams invariably lead to roads.  Hikers know what to do when lost in the wilderness.  The author does not.  But, in her aimless wandering, she relates how she wandered into a job with a nun who regaled her with stories about dogwood and red bud trees using several pages to relate this information. I’m convinced that the wilderness section is merely a device to explain the job where she learns to put towels at the foot of guest beds, ponders red bud trees, and works in an area unrelated to her degrees in literature.  

Chapter 3 (Saucer Magnolia) brought the most cohesive writing so far.  “The wilderness is not necessarily a desolate place.  It has its own unique beauty, and that beauty is enough.  It does not need us. It does not require our participation. . . [T]ime in the wilderness is a gift. . . This is the place we go to listen.  In the wilderness, we are given the opportunity to lay down the burden of our desire to make and remake so that when some other place invites our participation and our creative efforts, we are ready to offer those things with humility.”  So now the book begins to draw us in.  To take us through a time of waiting. . . waiting for the author to find her home place, waiting for her to find her vocation. 

This is a book that does get better with age.  In Chapter 8 (Crepe Myrtle and Chestnut) the author recognizes the value of things forgotten, things in the past, and becomes excited when she discovers an old chestnut beam in a falling-down shed on their property.  She envisioned it going on to become the beam in a barn, to live on and represent what came before.  And that’s what we all should do.  As we live in a place, we should not just use it, but also respect it. We should respect the work done by the original builder and the others who have preceded us, but do our part to leave it better for those who follow. 

The old and the lost should not always be replaced with new.   The builder of my vacation rental used salvage items, from the matched glass-paneled doors in the loft to the massive basement staircase.  I’ve continued that expression with a turn of the century bathroom door, and 1930’s oak cupboards in a kitchen.  Some things need to be saved lest they be forever lost.  The author highlights the American Chestnut trees which were wiped out in the early 1900’s through a virus brought from Japan.  I love trees, but had never given a thought to the almost extinct American Chestnut.  It was once commonly used for snacking, baking, and building.  The author’s description motivated me to do a little research and I found that one mature tree may still exist in Ohio, but it has no other American Chestnut to pollinate it.  Let’s support the current efforts to save endangered trees and plants from their various predators, and to use salvaged materials in our homes so that the old can be preserved. 

As the book continues, the author speaks of the value of decay as she ferments vegetables.  That’s a quality I’ve seen on spring hikes—spring when the first green shoots appear, yet the trail is splotched with decay from fallen branches and moldy bark where melting snow and ice and massive spring rains swell the creeks leaving more moldy detritus along the way.  I encourage decay in the woods.  When a tree falls, my handyman urges me to let him cut it and use it for firewood.  But fallen trees are a way the forest is nourished.  Lichens grow, beautiful, smooth, and orange.  Small animals use the hollow trunk for shelter. Beetles attack the bark and branches. While the smaller branches and twigs trap fallen leaves creating more hiding places for the forest fauna.  In time, the tree will break down and nourish the soil.  Even standing dead trees are places for owls and other birds and animals.  In our city house, we cut them down so as not to inconvenience our neighbors, but at the forest house we can let nature do its work.  After a tree falls, the author spends an amount equivalent to the price of a good used car to have a long row of silver maples lining her drive pruned to preserve them and prevent their decay.  There are times when decay is desired and times when it must be stopped.

The book concludes by showing that we must not wait until everything is perfect to invite others into our lives through meals and sharing space.  We can help bring healing through our acts of kindness and hospitality.  And finally, the author returns for a visit to her Chicago neighborhood for the 20th anniversary of the church she was part of and which (at the end of the book) we now learn meant so much to her.  We feel the fear that she experienced when she stares up at condo she lived in while pursuing her PhD.  She experiences so much fear that she cannot even step inside to visit an old friend. This was the place where she finished her PhD, had her first two children, and was the first home she and her husband purchased and renovated.  She remembers the cost, the effort, and the reward.  She reconnects with people she knew.  She conquers her fear and is enriched.  The end of the book should have been the model for the beginning.  If only it had been.   

I was provided a free copy of this book for the purposes of review.  I was not required to write a positive review.