“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” by Sean Dietrich

Sean Dietrich

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Personal, warm, heart-rendering in spots, funny in others, and nearly perfectly written word by word, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Zondervan 2020) is classic Sean Dietrich. Which is to say, this memoir is good, very good—excellent, in fact. It has the power, the poignancy and emotional impact of Angela’s Ashes, yet the music in the language is classically Southern. It is not always easy to read—nor was Angela’s Ashes—but just when it all seems too sad or too harsh, Dietrich offers up humor or insight or a bold dose of pure, sweet love. Sometimes he gets in a quick jab of wry humor in a one-liner; sometimes he builds the tale to a sweet funny climax; often he is thoughtful; always he is compassionate. Through it all, Dietrich’s honesty and talent shine.

For the thousands of regular readers and fans of Dietrich’s daily blog, “Sean of the South,” the basic story line of his life revealed in this memoir won’t offer too many surprises. Dietrich over the six years of writing his blog has shared the main events of his life. As revealed in the blogs, there was much he had to transcend, and his essays on that process—that glorious transcendence—helped make him a star. His memoir offers more insight, details, and richness than the blogs, and reading this book is like being invited personally into the life of this impressive man.

Dietrich was only twelve when his father died. The first line of the book grabs the reader with its directness: “The day before my father shot himself, I saw a blue heron.” In that opening chapter, titled “Camp Creek,” Dietrich compares his father to a heron, and observes: “He was a welder, an ironworker, and birdlike qualities came in handy on the iron. He could crawl upon the skeletons of skyscrapers like a tightrope walker.”

The book does not shy away from the brutishness of Dietrich’s father, yet in writing about it, the author mostly refrains from harsh judgment or condemnation. He addresses the sporadic abuse with a degree of openness in which his pain—physical and emotional—is evident. “I remember the first time my father hit me. …He smacked me only once. I stumbled backwards, it stunned me. I can still hear the sound.”

The author was only five at the time his father first hit him, and while Dietrich writes that he did not remember what he had done to provoke his father, he does recall “that after he hit me, his face changed. He wore a look of horror. …Then…he started crying.”

In passages like that, Dietrich evinces a kind of mercy and grace which he also attributes to his mother. Of her, Dietrich writes that she extended mercy to his father “even when he did not deserve it. Even though he used it against her.”

Dietrich is open in his praise of his mother: “My mother has always believed in second chances. And it is here where her power lies. I would not be the person I am if my mother had not been so forgiving.” But as he makes clear, his mother was no weakling and stood to protect him against his father’s rages. He recounts one event in which Dietrich as a boy lost control of their Ford tractor and damaged the grill. His father began to hit him, and Dietrich, terrified, ran to the house. He described his father in that moment as “not himself. He was another man. I don’t know who, but it wasn’t him. This man had big eyes and clenched teeth.”

Dietrich outran his father and hid behind his mother, who stood with wide legs and hands balled into fists, as she told her husband that if he touched their son again, it would be the last thing he ever did. The father backed down, and later that night, Dietrich found him lying under the dented tractor, “bawling, with his face pressed into a work blanket.”

The book is organized into chapters which read like short stories, and they follow Dietrich’s life in a loose kind of chronological order. He opens his chapters with strong initial sentences that capture something real about his life that he is so generously sharing. “In my family, there was no real difference between fried chicken and religion,” begins the second chapter, “Paper Plates.”  Or, “You don’t know you’re getting older until it’s too late. It happens without your permission,” the opening in “Six Old Strings,” chapter 9.

While coming to terms with his father, who is both hero and villain, is a dominant factor in the memoir, it is the women who save Sean Dietrich, and it is to the women he dedicates his book: “To my mother, my wife, my sister, and Ellie Mae. The women in my life.” It’s worth noting that Ellie Mae is a dog, a gift to him from his wife Jamie, and Ellie Mae is described as “nothing but legs, ears, and stink” when she first came to live with Dietrich and his wife.

Perhaps the most beautiful and tender portions of this memoir are the chapters about Jamie—how he met her, their wedding, the abiding strength and love between them. These passages save the book from being just another abused-child-finds-peace memoir. They back the book away from sadness, and fairly explode with positive, optimistic, adoring love.

Dietrich’s memory of meeting Jamie as she ate (and ate) fried chicken is fun and rather endearing. But his chapter on the eleven years it took him to get a college degree contains perhaps the best tribute to Jamie. These long eleven years included “squelching, torturous, demonic, heart-twisting, cruel and unusual, hellish years of math.” After Dietrich explains that “when someone starts talking about numbers, all I hear are mushy sounds that don’t mean much.” Jamie is quite different:

My wife, however, is a math genius. She tutored me on Monday and Wednesday nights and muscled me through each math course. It was a miracle we stayed married because teaching me requires an almost biblical amount of patience. Often, my wife would attempt to explain basic algebraic concepts only to realize her husband’s numerical IQ was the same as that of a residential water heater.

All in all, Dietrich’s memoir is uplifting and joyful despite the harsh events he sometimes discusses. The brutal aspects are essential to the truth. That he reveals them with tenderness, grace and love is a testament to this special man and his special book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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