A Family in Fragments: Happenstance by Robert Root

Morgan Vogel Chinnock

Happenstance Cover

Robert Root’s Happenstance is built on an obsession I am intimately familiar with: the search for one’s identity in a family story. The memoir’s organization mimics the experience of digging up any family story—it’s in fragments. Each piece of prose (you can hardly call them chapters) is only one to two pages long. Some of these fragments (which Root labels “The Hundred Days”) are word paintings of particular days. Some of them (labeled “Happenstance”) are broader in nature, adding historical and societal context. He also includes “Literary Remains,” letters and poems left by family members, and “Album” pieces, which include and analyze particular photographs. This way, we come to know Root’s family both through his memory-tellings and through items his ancestors left behind. In addition to mimicking the nature of memory, the fragments give the book a sense of forward movement that serves its weighty material well.

From the beginning, it is clear that Root seeks to understand the crucial moments in his parents’ tumultuous relationship and how those times come together to inform his identity. In his words, “I want not merely to uncover the past but to see it as a moment when the future was uncertain, optional, before anyone knew what was happening, what did happen.” And so he moves us through more than half a century, one fragment at a time.

Bob and Marie (Root’s father and mother) married in 1942, just two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Two months after their wedding, Bob went off to basic training in the marines. Marie was eighteen; Bob was twenty. The intrusion of war into their teenage marriage, and the choices they made as a result, cast ripples that cropped up the rest of their lives. In mid-twentieth-century, small-town America, propriety and “the American dream” provided constant conflict with the realities inside Root’s parents’ relationship.

The narrative tone is mostly that of an objective bystander, trying to piece together the facts with care. This tone can sometimes hold the reader at arm’s length, but that distance feels authentic to both the narrator’s and the family’s characters. And yet, in the end, Root does what must be done to write a good family story—he makes himself vulnerable. He describes his younger self and his parents with the honesty of someone who has taken decades to reflect and examine a situation from all angles. He lays out many contradictions, and he lets them rest beside each other on the page. We get to see his deep love of the mother he later learns was incredibly manipulative, his early resentment towards a dutiful father, the detachment he developed to survive the difficult emotional surroundings of his adolescence.

By describing what he calls “happenstances,” Root explores to what extent things outside our control can change the trajectory of our lives, and he asks how much power our choices have alongside those happenstances. Along the way, we learn the relational landscape of two families colliding in marriage (one blue collar, one white collar). We see the small town in New York state where Root’s parents lived across the street from his maternal grandparents. We sense the changing social environment as Root became a teen in the 1950s (James Dean films, comic books, his pinboy job in a bowling alley).

What emerges from these fragments of memory, photo paper, and postcards is the sense of a family in a particular historical time and place. We feel Root’s parents’ heartache and hunger in their marriage, their disappointment and rage and silent resignation. We see how their son chose to sculpt his own family life, and ultimately how he came to a place of peace in the present moment. Robert Root handles the often somber narrative with wisdom, precision, and self-awareness. If family stories intrigue you, then the world Root creates in Happenstance will fascinate you as it did me.


Happenstance
by Robert Root
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-60938-191-2

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