In addition to this review, author Steve Cushman shares a moving essay, "Fathers and Sons," and explores the theme that shapes his book, Heart with Joy.
When Julian Hale’s father comes home from work one April evening, wordlessly changes into sweats, and runs away, Julian’s first thought is that “he might not come back at all.” And that might be OK. Six weeks earlier, Julian’s mother abruptly left their home in Greensboro for Florida to help run her parents’ motel and finish her novel. Julian reasons that if his father disappears, he’ll get to live with his mother again.
But his father returns, panting, and informs Julian that he’s training for a marathon. With that statement, the layers of wisdom and emotion in this deceptively simple, gentle novel begin to unfold.
The notion that his unathletic father would run 26 miles is one of many unexpected developments that shake up the existence Julian has known his entire 15 years.
He was close to his stay-at-home mom. When she wasn’t writing her unpublished novels, she cooked, walked, and talked with Julian. Julian’s father worked long hours as a nurse and came home mostly to shower, eat, and sleep.
Surprises mount. The elderly bird-watcher next door draws Julian into a friendship and into a new understanding of life and love. A friendly girl who works at the supermarket learns that the way to a shy boy’s heart might be through the culinary skills he discovered after his mother left.
With his parents apart, Julian learns more about each of them — and about their relationship. Julian begins to understand the nature of sacrifice and the meaning of love. His greatest insight may be learning what can fill a heart with joy.
Steve Cushman’s second novel grows on you quietly, much as awareness and relationships grow on Julian. You read it to learn what happens to Julian, and then you reflect on the truths in this warm, memorable story.
Canterbury House Publishing. 2010, 182 pages, paperback, $14.95.
Fathers and Sons
By Steve Cushman
Why am I compelled to write about fathers and sons? Perhaps it is because I have a seven year old son myself or the fact that my father died almost twenty years ago, back when I was in my early twenties, around the time I started writing. Our relationship was similar to other father and sons that I knew of, meaning we were friendly enough toward each other, even if my father had no problem giving me a hard time about my long hair or ever-expanding waist line.
I wouldn’t say I really knew much about him besides the basic surface stuff: where he was from, what he did for a living, and that his idea of a good evening was a cold beer, a bag of pretzels, and a boxing match on ESPN. While I am sure there was more to him then what I knew, he never opened himself up to me, but I also never asked the questions that might have got him talking. Perhaps this is the way of fathers: keep the distance, don’t let your kids see you fail or be vulnerable in any way. I don’t know and I didn’t think too much about it until later, after he was gone and I found there were things I wanted to ask him, things I wanted to tell him.
Both of my published novels, Heart With Joy and Portisville, explore father and son relationships. My new novel, Heart With Joy, is about a lot of things–cooking and bird watching and falling in love for the first time, not to mention the importance of finding your passion in life–but at its core, to me, it is a story about a father and son relationship. In the novel, 15 year old Julian Hale’s mother leaves her family and moves from North Carolina to Florida under the pretense of managing her parents’ motel and finishing a novel she has been writing for years. Julian’s mother has always been the central figure in the family, so once Julian and his father, who have never been particularly close, are left alone they have to figure out how to live with each other. And they do eventually start to figure this out as they eat the meals Julian cooks for them.
My first novel, Portisville, while very different from Heart With Joy, also dealt with a father and son relationship. Portisville was a much darker novel, a mystery that centered around an unsolved murder, but again to me the novel was really about what happens when an estranged father and son come together over the course of a weekend.
My father died, obviously, before my first novel was published. I would have liked to hand him a copy and see the look on his face. I would have liked to hear him say he was proud of me. And I would have liked for him to hold my son when he was still a baby or to come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner and together we would split a six-pack of beer as we watched a football game or two. When he was weakened by turkey and beer, I would start to ask him questions about his life. That would be my plan. That is how I would get to know him.
While it’s not something I consciously set out to do, I see now that in Heart With Joy, Julian is allowed into his father’s world in ways I never was with my dad. He discovers what his father was like before he met his mother. He finds out that at one time his father had dreams of being a potter but he had given them up to go to school and become a nurse so he could support his family. Most likely, Julian never would have known these things, never would have asked, if he and his father had not been left alone together. This novel game me the chance, as a writer, to create the scenario I would have liked for my father and me, time to really talk, the chance to understand each other a little clearer.
In the end, perhaps that’s what writers do–we get to change, or re-write, what really happened, and give our characters resolutions to their problems. Something we don’t always get in real life. I just wish, like so many others, that I’d been smart enough to ask the questions that really mattered back when I had the chance.