24 June 2011

Mark Richard. House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2011.

photo from The New Yorker

Say you're reading a book; the story is one that you think you’ll know before you’ve even started reading. In nearly every review and description of the book, authors illustrate that the memoir will detail the life of a "special child" growing up in tobacco-loving Southside Virginia during the 1960s. You might assume that the book will be rather self-congratulatory on the part of the author, Mark Richard, and that you will not be able to relate to him or to his experience at all. On those points, you will be wrong and then most likely right. Richard does not at all seem to be patting himself on the back for the success he has created after an undoubtedly difficult childhood complicated by deformed hips. However, you will probably find it hard to relate to his unbelievable and varied experiences.

At this point, I will stop writing in the second person as Richard does throughout his memoir. In an interview with Diane Rehm, he discusses how this method allowed for a “sense of detachment” throughout the book. His life and memories are truly extraordinary: being labeled “slow” in elementary school because of the way he walked and his unique ideas; undergoing multiple surgeries on his hips that included full-body casts; driving Truman Capote to a reading at his college, Washington and Lee; falling out with his father; spending long seasons working hard labor along the East Coast; trying his luck in New York City; winning a major literary award and subsequently befriending Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; feeling perhaps the call to ministry but instead deciding to keep to writing; finding success and pleasure in writing, but realizing true purpose in returning home to help his mother build her church, the House of Prayer No. 2.

Reading the reviews for House of Prayer No. 2, I felt a little bit nervous, wondering exactly what someone who grew up a "special child" in tobacco-loving Southside Virginia during the 1960s might remember about the people and the customs. While there are definitely some disturbing passages (for example, the account of a schoolmate’s show-and-tell item of Nat Turner’s skin) and painful reminders of social injustices, Richard’s account of Southside Virginia is mostly positive.

As I mentioned on Monday, I like to read books set in Southside Virginia or by author from our corner of the world because I feel more connected to the stories. In this case, there was little for me to relate to, but that did not diminish my interest in Richard’s story. Even the landscape was a bit of a mystery for me. Richard never expressly gave the memoir a set location of his hometown, but it was somewhat easy to surmise. He discussed the Great Dismal Swamp and being driven to a children’s hospital in Richmond “through swamps, low woodlands, fields turned over for peanuts and corn” (p. 28). I assumed that it was in an eastern county of Southside Virginia, but I learned in Richard’s interview with Rehm that he grew up in the town of Franklin (not to be confused with the county). While this is not technically in the geographic area we are considering “Southside Virginia” for this blog, we’ll let Richard’s memoir slide.

Have you read House of Prayer No. 2? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

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