Miller examines life's hardships in latest book

Author Tekla Miller in her home office. Miller will host a Jan. 10 book signing for her latest book, A Bowl of Cherries, at Maria’s./Photo by Dustin Bradford.

Book Review: Overcoming life’s biggest blows is difficult for anyone, but when your life is marked by suicide, depression, rape, abuse and poverty, it takes a person with Herculean emotional strength to triumph. Durango author Tekla Miller, who endured all these blows and more, succeeds.

In her newest memoir, A Bowl of Cherries, Miller gives readers a glance at her childhood, which was rife with misfortune from infancy to her liberating graduation from high school. At age 9, Miller’s father, once on track to pitch for the New York Yankees, suffers extensive injuries from a head-on train collision. From his full-body cast he tries to keep his family together as the money dries up, his wife becomes embittered and the mercurial marriage deteriorates. He soon dies of a heart attack, to the dismay and relief of Miller’s mother.

Four years later, when Miller is only 13, her mother suddenly becomes prone to nightlong wanderings. Tightlipped and stoic, in spite of the family’s first chance to escape poverty, her mother tries to press on but eventually succumbs to the overwhelming guilt about not grieving her husband’s death. She hangs herself in the family’s basement, leaving only a stunning note on the bathroom door: “I am dead.”

That leaves Miller, the youngest of three children, parentless and seemingly stuck in a pattern of misfortune that she can’t shake because her family life set her up for it. Her older brother, Chuck, joins the military and becomes a distant observer to the pain that continues to plague the family. Miller’s older sister, Alyce, takes her in. But it’s hardly a refuge or salvation, since Alyce is married to a womanizing, abusive brute named Angelo. Miller spends her teenage years forging a new kind of relationship with Alyce while also frequently on the run from the dreadful marriage.

In the aftermath of her parents’ tragedies, Miller carries on not only because she has no choice, but also because her mother’s spin on accepting life’s messes – delivered through platitudes – are forever stuck in her memory. “You have to take the bitter with the better,” her mother was fond of saying. Even more, particularly when Miller felt life was least fair to her, her mother would tell her, “It’s one of the vicissitudes of life.”

These are remarkable precepts coming from a woman whose poverty and contempt for her husband kept her stuck in an ugly place, but couldn’t save her from her own hand. It’s these platitudes that Miller hangs onto for hope and flight from a too-familiar world of abuse and oppression.

Though slow to start, by the time Miller relates stories of running from Angelo, the attention she pays to details are impressive. She vividly describes clothes she wore on various special occasions, allowing readers to understand how meaningful they were. She easily conveys the rare care-free moments by detailing her environment, like what songs were playing on the radio when she, Alyce and Alyce’s children, arrived in Los Angeles after leaving Angelo for a third and final time. Miller writes about those moments with clarity and joy. They evoke feelings of freedom and for a moment takes readers away from all the dolor the family tries to endure during the Depression in Syracuse, N.Y.

Fortunately, Miller’s stories aren’t weighed down with self-pity. And despite the gravity of the events and the constant violations she endures, she never politicizes or apologizes. She is not a confessional sentimentalist.

Unfortunately, her tragic stories lack fire and art. Miller concentrates more on the superficial story lines, making sure the chronology is right but never writing with the conviction that exposes her emotional core. She doesn’t draw a self-portrait. Readers know the events of the story, but they don’t know how these events were shaping her life. Was she paralyzed by self-criticism? What were her ambitions? By focusing too much on events and other people, she fades in describing herself.

True, Miller grew up in a family that tried hard to believe in accepting their fate without dwelling on adversity. But in many of Miller’s stories, she missed an opportunity to really nail down that point with readers and show them how manner trumps matter. Had Miller let us inside her heart, sharing with us her opinions, sharing with us her analysis of her life instead of just simply recounting routes along the journeys, these stories would be more heart-rendering.

There is a desultory quality to the memoir that doesn’t quite satisfy the element of survivorship that is intrinsically part of a lifetime of such hardships. Miller surely survives; how much enrichment she would have given readers if she’d said how she did so.







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