In one of the early essays in Sheryl St. Germain’s 50 Miles, she writes about her love of hand-spun, hand-painted yarns: “[T]here’s such a loveliness to the unevenness of it, the unexpected variations in color as a strand slips through your fingers . . . give me a bit of turbulence, the beauty of imperfection, this rough texture that hints at intimacy with sheep or llama or alpaca, give me the very real possibility that at any moment it could all unravel.” The same could be said of St. Germain’s writing. It’s lyrical, textured, natural, and unexpected. While the form these essays take are varied in content and style—some are thick and fibrous while others are delicate, unicolored strands that focus on one small aspect of grief—together they make for a rich, textured collection. And yet, from the very first essay, the reader has the foreboding sense that lives and hopes, like St. Germain’s yarns, can unravel at any moment.
St. Germain’s narrative does unravel when her son, Gray, dies unexpectedly of an overdose shortly after completing rehab. St. Germain is then left to create new patterns and crochet a life from new materials. She finds comfort and healing in familiar and surprising places, including video games, nature, travel, fiber arts, and teaching writing.
In the introduction St. Germain writes, “My son was born into a family cursed with substance abuse. I use the words addict and alcoholic often in this collection, but it’s not without awareness that those words often color too deeply how we see someone.” St. Germain does not ever boil her son down to his addiction. In describing Gray, she tries to capture the complexity of the person as well as the complexity of the problem:
If I say my son and I come from a family of alcoholics and addicts I must also say that we come from a family of workers: carpenters and builders, waitresses, warriors and mechanics, gardeners. We come from a family of politicians and jocks, musicians, book-lovers, drug dealers and dreamers. We come from a family of good cooks and risk-takers, a southern family as proud of its southern roots as it is of its dark handsomeness. But the thing that ties most of us together is a propensity for drink and drugs.
This complexity—of the people and of their problems and triumphs—permeates the collection.
The book is divided into four sections. The first includes essays written while St. Germain’s son was still alive. Reading these early essays—tinted with hope and longing—while knowing what is coming, makes them all the more heartbreaking and resonant. It would be tempting, after the fact, to rewrite the narrative, to write toward that inevitable ending, but St. Germain chooses to leave these essays as is so we can see her son’s addiction in medias res. She notes in the introduction, “I did not want to go back and change [the essays] to reflect my knowledge that he would soon die. It felt more honest to let them stand as genuine moments in time.” And so, these essays talk of how St. Germain was pressured into medicating Gray when he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child; they talk of corporal punishment, crochet, children who no longer want to speak to you, the brutality of Mother’s Day, and the author’s own struggles with addiction. These early essays act as a constant reminder of the gravity of what has been lost and of the confusing new narrative the author has suddenly been thrown into.
The second section picks up after Gray’s death with St. Germain buckling under the weight of grief, searching for ways to explain the unexplainable. In “Essay in Search of a Poem,” she describes carrying a poem around with her from month to month, from country to country, moving things around, hoping that the poem will make its needs known, that it will thrive if only placed in the right light. This poem becomes a metaphor for Gray’s life and for a mother’s grief.
Part three describes how St. Germain bonded with Gray through gaming and how she found solace in continuing to play video games after his death. She describes her initial resistance to gaming when Gray was a child, thinking the games would be addictive and provoke violence. But later, when Gray was a teenager, they found games they both enjoyed, which helped bring them together at a time when most kids want nothing to do with their parents. St. Germain neither glorifies nor vilifies gaming, acknowledging it brought her closer to her son, but also its potential to feed impulsiveness, sway moods, and cause avoidance. After his death, St. Germain continued to game saying, “While I remember Gray in a myriad of ways that are not connected to the digital world—the sound of his voice, his laugh, the gray shimmer of his eyes—the metaphors from gaming give me unique access to his psyche, and the labyrinths of both our linked and separate journeys.”
The final essay in the collection takes on a different tone as it is a call to action. In 2009, St. Germain cofounded a program for teaching creative writing to residents of correctional and rehabilitation facilities. She writes, “Can creative writing save someone in the throes of addiction? Absolutely not. . . . It’s important not to enter this work with the romantic notion that you are saving people.” And yet she goes on to say, “Perhaps one reason I believe so strongly in programs that make use of creative writing in recovery is because I used it myself to structure and channel the turmoil of my life. . . .”
This book is a testament to that. By the last page, we understand that sometimes narratives—like crochet projects—unravel. But we also see that it’s possible to pick up and start again.
About the Reviewer
Lisa Van Orman Hadley graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She is the author of Irreversible Things, for which she was awarded the Howling Bird Book Prize and an AML Special Prize in Literature. Her stories have appeared in Epoch, New England Review, and The Collagist, among others, and have been shortlisted in Ploughshares and Glimmer Train. She lives in Salt Lake City.