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Time Out - April 21, 2004
SECTION: Pg. 56
LENGTH: 270 words
HEADLINE: 'Name all the Animals: A Memoir of the Child Left Behind' Alison Smith Scribner GBP 12.99;
Books: Preview - Book of the week
Until the age of 15, Alison Smith's mother rarely called her Alison.
She called her Alroy, because, close as Alison was to her brother Roy, it seemedeasier to amalgamate the two names, so seldom were they apart. But one stormy morning in July 1984, Alison wakes to discover her beloved brother has been killed in a car crash. From this moment, sundered from her only soulmate, she isforced to reconfigure not only her name, but her entire existence.
While her devoutly Catholic parents crumble into a crisis of grief and faith, Alison assumes the role of coping daughter. She must appear to 'move on' and, thanks to some secret habits, she does. As well as registering the 'number of moments' since he died 'I calculated 15 months, 65 weeks, 456 days, 10,944 hours, 656,640 minutes' Alison also starts saving her food at night and leaving it in the garden for Roy. Perhaps, she muses, she would have stopped 'but for this one fact:
mysteriously, miraculously, the food disappeared'. These moments of communion with him allow her to appear 'normal' during the day.
Smith's memoir segues effortlessly between the 'Before' time and the 'After ', sorather than uniformly linear, her recollection feels fresh and real. While some of her memories are terrible to read, there are enough joyful anecdotes that thebook never feels selfpityingly indulgent (as well it might). This is Smith's first book, but if her quite beautiful consciousness of the world, of love, loss, and the unfathomable bond between human beings dead and alive is anything to go by, she's one to watch.
Times (London) - April 16, 2004, Friday
SECTION: Features; 6
LENGTH: 1821 words
HEADLINE: Lament for a lost brother
BYLINE: Penny Wark
TWENTY YEARS AFTER HER BROTHER'S DEATH IN A CAR CRASH, ALISON SMITH HAS PUBLISHED A COMPELLING MEMOIR OF SIBLING LOVE, RELIGIOUS FAMILY GUILT AND FORBIDDEN PASSION. PENNY WARK MEETS HER
THE GRIEF CUT IN when she was least expecting it. Climbing a tree, which she had done hundreds of times before, was suddenly impossible. She froze, couldn't do it.
"You become frightened of ordinary things," she says. "There's also this walking around the house just touching objects. You touch the sofa and feel the nap of the upholstery because something so primal has been taken from you that you don't know if the world is still there, and it was almost an offence that it was. How could the world continue when this boy had been taken?"
Alison Smith was 15 when her brother Roy died in a car crash. He was 18, the shy big brother who taught her to go into the woods, to build things, to explore, to read books. "He opened up a life in my mind, a life of work not as duty but as an inspiration, a way of finding meaning in the world. I was seen as the good girl, polite and quiet, sweet and pretty, I'd make somebody a nice wife and mother. I think he saw me as funny and daring, a troublemaker with a mind like his that just wanted to open and open and open."
They were so close that their mother called them Alroy. When Roy died, their parents, deeply loving and openly good people, retreated into their Catholic faith. Smith understood their grief, though not, at the time, her own. But over the past six years she has dissected and made sense of her feelings by writing a memoir that describes the three years that followed Roy's death.
Name All the Animals is an eloquent, taut and unsentimental expression of the intensity of a strong sibling relationship. It explains what it is like to grow up in an American suburb that is also an insular Catholic community, full of benign intent yet shot through with prejudice. It is a story about the passion of first love, and a plea for acceptance because that love was taboo. But it is primarily a book about grief and the isolation that results. For this reason it has been compared with the most recent bestselling examination of grief, Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. Possibly because it is a real story, Smith's is more direct and powerful: "Grief can blind you; it pulls loose the seam of memory. It weakens your senses," she writes.
Smith is 35, a former worker in the voluntary sector and more recently a dishwasher; she lives in Brooklyn and has yet to acquire the expensive gloss of the successful author. She is unassuming and surprised by the praise her first book has attracted. She talks as precisely as she writes, and even though writing has brought her comfort, the rawness of her feelings is still apparent.
Roy died in the family's camper van when it caught fire after an accident. The next day the local paper in Brighton, Rochester, New York State, reported his death in crass detail. Smith's parents thought it best that she should never read the article and that she should pray instead and so began a domestic regime in which Roy informed everything that happened in the household, but was not discussed. Smith's father, an Irish Catholic factory worker, carried his statue of St Jude around the house and spoke to it; her mother, a secretary, washed Roy 's clean clothes in the middle of the night. Within three weeks she had bought a camper van of the same make and model as the one in which he died, and refitted its interior to make it identical. This then stood in the family's drive as though nothing had changed.
"My parents had these very physical dramatic responses of denial to their child's death," Smith says. "They were extraordinarily private people, which is one of the reasons Roy and I were so close. We were not allowed to join the swim team or playgroups; my parents told us to play together in the back yard. Then this happened and they were thrust centre stage in this tiny community and they were scrutinised and it brought them a great deal of shame. First because they had not protected their child, as they saw it, and second because they didn't like to have emotion in public. So they became very private with their grief, and because they couldn't talk to anyone about it they came up with strange rituals."
Smith, a child with a highly developed imagination, had never found it difficult to accept the presence of God, who, in her community, seemed as tangible as cars and the laws of gravity. It was natural for her to talk to Jesus: "He was my most intimate friend. He walked with me to the school bus, he helped me fall asleep by sitting on the end of the bed. So when Roy died I had to talk to him.
"I went into the upstairs bathroom, the only place where I could be alone, and I asked Jesus 'Where's Roy?' Jesus was there. He looked like a children's Bible illustration with his long robes sitting on the edge of the tub, and he wouldn't look at me. He just stood up and walked away. I never saw Jesus again. For me that was the end of faith, the removal of a great gift, a great organising principle in my life."
Thus Smith felt the shame of being an atheist in a community where it was unusual not to believe in this unseen, unmaterial world. This became the first of many secrets she kept from her parents. The next involved food. She and Roy had always shared food and when he died she began to push half of each meal off her plate into a paper bag on her lap, and took it to the fort behind the garage where they had played. The food disappeared, eaten, she later discovered, by a stray dog.
"I wanted to get back to Roy and I don't think I lost my mind, but I came close because you had to let go of certain kinds of logic. Grief does that to you. I thought maybe he didn't die, maybe he ran away into the road where the accident happened. Maybe he was going to come back." Gradually more and more of her food was given to Roy, "until I was giving up almost all my food to the memory of my brother. I was eating memory instead of food."
Surely her parents noticed that their daughter was grief-stricken and anorexic? They didn't, not because they weren't loving parents, she believes, but because alongside their instinct to protect her was a desire to keep her childlike and innocent.
"For them I became a physical manifestation of their denial. They refused to see my anorexia, and although I'm certain there's no way in which they wished harm for me I do think on a subconscious level this worked for them because it meant I stopped developing. Somehow they wanted to keep my mind pure and my body small because then I was this physical reminder that time was not passing. I didn't grow up for them."
For her, the process had another significance: if she could disappear, perhaps she could be with Roy. Her next project was learning to drive so that on the third anniversary of Roy's death she could put on his clothes and take the replica camper van to the place where he died, and try to follow him. "Could I go through some door in time and find him? For a younger sibling, surpassing the age at which Roy died was very challenging. I was always the second-place kid, the tagalong. I almost couldn't bear to go past 18, the age at which Roy died. We were so merged it seemed biologically impossible. I thought, that's when I will die."
Did she want to die?
"I wanted to die, yes. I wanted to be with Roy. If the choice was, you can have the known world or you can have an unknown world where it is guaranteed that Roy is there as he was in life, I'll go with Roy. I think a lot of people would have chosen that because he was a great guy." So, at 5.55am, the time Roy died, she drove to the scene of the accident and waited for an old blue Dodge with bald tyres to swerve into her. Nothing happened. And only then did she feel a sense of permission, and a will, to live without him.
All this had happened without her parents' knowledge, and there had been one more secret: a girl called Terry, who, like Roy, stimulated her intellectually. She was a troublemaker too, which in the world of Smith's convent school meant that she read Colette rather than Austen. Together they began to misbehave, sneaking into the woods around their convent school where they discovered a secret swimming pool used by the nuns, and then sneaking to meet at night while their parents slept.
For the first time since Roy's death, Smith wanted something.
"After a year or so it finally dawned on us that we were falling in love. I kissed her behind the statue of the virgin on the second floor and that kiss was...
I'll never forget it. It was surprising and a wonderful and terrifying moment for me. Boy, was I lucky. I had learnt from Roy to go towards what was compelling, what was intellectually interesting without thinking, is this proper, it it good, is it what the Church wants?"
Predictably, perhaps, her mother was appalled by her daughter's love for another girl. "Lesbians will burn in Hell," she told Smith. "I think she believed she was trying to save me from eternal damnation and permanent psychological damage. And maybe I needed her to say that to me so that I could run into the woods and sit there in the pouring rain and think for the first time, was she right? Maybe my parents didn't know what they were talking about all the time. I still struggle with whether I might burn in Hell but it was the first moment I started questioning this very insular Catholic world I lived in."
Smith's father accepts his daughter's sexuality but her mother struggled with it until she died last year. "When she would speak to me she had a code for what we would talk about. "If I had a new friend she would say, 'Would I like her?' I had to answer no if there was lesbian content, yes if it was safe for my mother. I swallowed this unspoken rule and told her the truth."
Smith broke this rule only once, when her mother was ill and asked if she would like her daughter's book. "I said, 'Mom I think you'd love it,' because I have to believe that's the truth."
Talking about this makes Smith's eyes fill with tears. I try to reassure her that her book is a fine achievement, that it articulates a universal emotion, and that her mother would be proud of her for writing it.
"She was a woman who loved life, she loved to celebrate, and I wish she could celebrate with us." Her voice still quivering, she says that many people have told her that they have read her book after losing a sibling, or that they are gay, and that it has given them a vocabulary to express their feelings to their mothers.
"That made me so glad I didn't die in that van that day. Whoever gets such a gift that their life could have a purpose?"
Name All the Animals, Scribner, £12.99, available from Books First at £10 plus £2.25 p&p. Call 0870 1608080
The Observer - April 4, 2004
SECTION: Observer Review Pages, Pg. 17
LENGTH: 380 words
HEADLINE: Review: Books: MEMOIR: The aftermath of brotherly love
BYLINE: URSULA KENNY
NAME ALL THE ANIMALS
By Alison Smith
Scribner £12.99, pp320
ALISON Smith and her brother, Roy, are so close that their mother calls them by one name - Alroy. Theirs is a sunny, close-knit life in the suburbs of America until, one day, when Alison is 15 and Roy 18, he is killed in a car crash. Name All the Animals is a beautifully written memoir that describes fluently and painfully how the living respond to the random cruelty of life. It details what happens next to 'the child left behind' and her parents.
At almost the moment Roy falls out of Alison's life, the turbulent world of adolescence crashes in (her first period starts the day before his death) and her journey to adulthood is made more intense and alienating by the grief which feeds and corrupts, so that she grows increasingly skewed. Unable to accept what has happened, she just waits for Roy to come back.
She waits for him at night in the 'fort' they built at the bottom of the garden. She stops eating so she can leave food out for him. She calls the people she meets who haven't heard about the tragedy 'the Before People' and takes joy and comfort from their innocence.
Alison steps so far into the life of a dead boy 'that the path back to the living world seemed impassable'. Meanwhile, her parents smother her - she is the only 15-year-old who has to have her hand held by an adult when she crosses the road - but fail to see her. She has anorexia and is wasting away before their eyes but her mother bundles her off to the local ER where she tells a doctor her daughter's most troubling symptom is that she reads too much.
The book has been compared to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones in its evocation of grief, but where The Lovely Bones can feel manipulative, Smith's writing pulls no strings and communicates more powerfully.
Moments stand out. When Alison's parents first find out about Roy, concerned friends and neighbours flock to the house. Her father tries to escape upstairs but halfway there he stops and 'lowers himself on to the middle step' where he remains, apparently oblivious, for the afternoon, a potent expression of shock and inertia.
To order Name All the Animals for £10.99 plus p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989
SUNDAY TELEGRAPH (LONDON) - April 4, 2004, Sunday
SECTION: Review Pg. 04
LENGTH: 1941 words
HEADLINE: Why wasn't I allowed to grieve too? Her parents received 400 sympathy cards when her brother Roy died; Alison Smith got one. She recalls life as a 'bit player' in their bereavement - and how, as an adult, she finally faced up to her own loss
BYLINE: by Alison Smith
It was the summer I got my first period. I was 15. I wanted to be an ice-skater, like the famous Norwegian Sonja Henie. When I wasn't at the rink practising my figures, I tagged along behind my big brother, Roy, telling jokes, trying to get him to laugh. I kept secret count of the number of days left before Roy would leave for his first year at college. We were down to day 28 on the morning in late July that two plain-clothed officers came by the house and told us Roy had died in a car accident.
I ran when the officers told us - slammed out the front door, tore down the street. The rain soaked through my slippers. One of the officers came after me. He caught up with me in front of the Wilsons' house, grabbed my shoulder, and pulled me to him. His large hands lay heavy on my thin arms. "They need you," he said.
"Your parents. They need you now. To be strong."
My parents received more than 400 sympathy cards. I received one - from my figure-skating instructor. I remember the white-on-white embossed lettering on the cover. I remember that she used the phrase "your brother" twice - as if I actually owned a piece of him. As if this loss - my parents' greatest tragedy - was also mine.
The day he died, shortly after the news hit, friends and relatives arrived at the house. As they burst through the front door - wild-eyed, calling my mother's name - I followed behind, picking up their umbrellas and purses. I waited as they wept on Mother's shoulder. When they finished, they asked for coffee. There was none. The adults were in no condition to brew coffee. So I found the directions under the lid of "Mr Coffee" and got to work. I didn't talk to the adults much - mostly I just asked if they took cream and sugar. When anyone spoke directly to me, it was to ask how I thought "they" were coping. "Are you taking good care of them?" they asked. And then: "They are so lucky to have you. You are all they have left now."
For a while, my parents were big news in our town. The subject of concern, compassion, scrutiny and gossip - the tragic death of their son thrust them centre stage in our small Catholic community. As I watched the drama unfold around them, I receded into the background. Without my brother there to stand up for me, I lost my place in the family.
As children, Roy and I had been close from the beginning - practically inseparable. We were so constantly together that my mother had combined our first names into a single shorthand. She called us both Alroy. Now, it seemed, there was no name for me. I became a bit player, an afterthought in the story of our family.
At the time, I did not mind this overwhelming focus on my parents. In fact, I rather preferred it. It allowed me to imagine that Roy had not left me; he had only left my parents. If I could palm this off to Mum and Dad, if they could be the ones at the centre of this terrible situation, I thought that I might not have to face it. So I started to disappear. And no one seemed to miss me.
I hid out at night in the fort that Roy and I had made behind our garage, and made plans for his return. Throughout our childhood, Roy and I had built four forts on that same secret spot. He was a perfectionist and each spring he insisted we tear down the old one and start from scratch. Every day from the first sign of spring, all through the summer and deep into the chilly fall, we spent hours in the back yard together - designing and measuring, hammering and sawing - building our own private kingdoms.
During the last weeks of his life, Roy had told me about a concept called the fourth dimension. "Space and time are linked," he had said as he hooked his fingers together. "Indissolubly."
He repeated it. "Indissolubly, Al. They can never be separated."
After he died I would sit in the fort and say this word. Indissolubly. I rolled the word on my tongue, enjoying the soft roundness of it, its opaque meaning. I believed that somehow it was the word that linked him to me. I believed that there was a secret code in it, and if I could somehow break it, Roy would come back.
Meanwhile, my parents went back to work. They answered all 400-and-odd sympathy cards. They attended church. They smiled at the neighbours. Father mowed the lawn. Mother weeded the garden. They returned to normal - under such close scrutiny, they felt they had to.
Behind closed doors, things were different. I watched as my parents sleepwalked through their days, staring into the middle distance. They stayed up all night, pacing the halls. My mother pulled Roy's clean clothes out of his wardrobe, piled them in the hamper, brought them down to the basement and washed them. My father acquired a small plastic statue of St Jude from the St Jude Society in Chicago and carried this "Saint of Hopeless Causes" around the house. They lost their taste for food, for games, for any kind of fun.
From my 15-year-old perspective, grief was a lot like my Great Aunt Bertha - I knew I had to see her once a year at family reunions, but I did everything I could to steer clear of her. So I refused to accept that I had lost Roy. Like a broken record, I kept repeating the same phrase - "He'll come back, he'll come back." I sat in the fort every night for three years and I waited for him.
I thought I had grief licked, but I hadn't noticed how much I had changed in those three years. During the day, I had trouble concentrating. I would stare at the pages of my favorite novels and the words would float in front of my eyes, devoid of meaning. My friends seemed far away and preoccupied with petty thoughts. I stopped skating. I stopped believing in God. At night, I would lie in bed, hold my breath, and try to will myself to disappear, like Roy had. Then, I stumbled upon a real disappearing act - I stopped eating. By the time I went off to college, I weighed less than 6 1/2 stone.
Leaving home was good for me. I joined a theatre troupe. I got a job running after-school reading for inner-city youth. I thought I was getting on with my life. But I found myself weeping at the most unlikely moments - on buses, at birthday parties, backstage before my entrances. I did not understand why I was crying. Rather than trying to get to the bottom of all this sadness, I made a joke out of it. I fancied myself a mysterious and tortured person. I decided to become a writer.
I showed my early stories to an author whose work I admired. He told me that he found them technically proficient. "But," he said, "I don't really care about anyone in them. There's not much emotion here. Why don't you write about your own life?"
The first thing I wrote about was my mother watching Roy drive away on that final morning. That summer, Roy had a job working the early-morning groundsman shift at the local golf course. He usually left the house before mother and I woke up. But that morning in late July, when my mother heard the engine turn over in the car, she got out of bed, pulled on her dressing gown and watched Roy behind the wheel of the car. She kept him in her sight as he backed down the driveway and pulled out onto the rain-soaked street.
Even though this scene was vivid in my mind, I had not been there. My mother had told me about it later. It's a powerful image: the mother's final glimpse of her child. But it's not mine. Then I wrote about my father losing his only son, his namesake. This is a true tragedy, a genuine heartbreaker. But it wasn't my story either.
Still, I kept writing about my parents, about all that they had lost when Roy died. I stayed awake most nights writing and fell into bed at dawn, slept for a few fitful hours and then walked down the hill to the restaurant where I worked as a waitress. I was sleepwalking through the days. At work, I mixed up the lunch orders. I delivered coffee when customers asked for tea. I started to wonder what was wrong with me. I imagined that I had a mysterious, exotic virus.
Two years later, I showed what I had written to a friend. When she had finished she asked: "Where are you in this story?"
I was indignant. "It's obvious. I'm telling it!"
She shook her head: "I don't think you are." She flipped through the pages. "I mean, where were you?"
I thanked her for her time and took my manuscript home in a huff. "I am on every page," I muttered to myself. "It's my voice, my point of view."
As I re-read it, my heart sank. In every family moment, from the joy of his birth to the horror of the day Roy died, I had written myself out of the story. I had become a camera recording every movement, every sound, every gesture - but I could not turn the lens around and focus it on myself.
I opened a new file on my computer. I stared at the blank screen. Then I closed my eyes for a moment and started typing.
I wrote about the nights I would sneak out to the fort. About, Shadow, the stray dog that visited me every night in the dark yard. The dog and I would lie on the grass and stare into the branches of the trees and wait for the night to pass. I wrote about the secret stash of food. Every night, at the dinner table, I slid my dinner off my plate, one forkful at a time, and slipped it into the open mouth of a greasy paper bag hidden on my lap. While mother and father watched the news, I deposited the food in the fort. It was for Roy.
A year later, I showed the manuscript to my friend again. She read it in one night. Her eyes were bright when she brought it over the next morning. She dropped it on the kitchen table next to my bowl of Cheerios. "Now you're getting somewhere."
We tell stories in order to make sense of our lives. They help us understand our past. When Roy died, I lost not only my brother, I lost big parts of myself. Who I was: the silly, sloppy, eager, chatty, tag-along little sister. Grief does that to you. It makes you lose the thread of your own story. What made it even harder was that no one else around me seemed to understand where I fitted into this story. In our culture, the grieving parent is honoured. It is understood that this is the worst thing that can happen to you - the loss of a child. It is worse than your own death. What we fail to realise is that the siblings grieve just as deeply.
When I wrote the book, I realised that there was no avoiding grief. I could no longer give it the slip the way I had Great Aunt Bertha at all those family reunions. In fact, if I was going to write this book, I was going to have to walk right up to grief and let it kiss me on both cheeks.
It took me six years to finish the book. And in describing what I had lost when Roy died - this beautiful, funny, hardworking, extraordinary yet completely ordinary big brother - I also told the story of everything I had. The joy of forts and card games and night-time escapades. Of sledging parties and skating on the frozen pond.
In the winter of that last year, when I was on my eighteenth draft and I knew I was nearing the end, I looked up from my desk one afternoon, out at the falling snow. I turned off my computer. I dug my old ice skates out of the back of my closet and brushed them off. The leather had grown stiff with age and lack of use. I slung them over my shoulder and walked down to the local pond.
I had not worn the skates since I was 15, since the day before Roy died. I laced them up and stepped onto the frozen pond. My ankles bowed at first. Then I pulled myself up, pushed off and made my way across the ice. I was no Sonja Henie, but I was on my way.
Name all the Animals, by Alison Smith (Scribner), is available for pounds 11.99 plus pounds 2.25 p&p from Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222.
The New York Times - Book Review - March 21, 2004
'Name All the Animals':
Half of AlRoy
By ELISSA SCHAPPELL
New York Times Book Review
Published: March 21, 2004
The best memoirs accost you, and like a stranger in a late-night diner they tell their stories in a way that makes time stand still and your coffee go cold beside you. Alison Smith's ''Name All the Animals,'' a portrait of her family's grief in the wake of her brother's death, does just that.
Alison and her older brother, Roy, were so close growing up that their mother called them by one name, Alroy. The summer of his death, Roy was about to enter college as an engineering student; Alison, 15, would be continuing on at convent school. That summer, like every other summer, the two erected a fort, a private refuge, in the woods behind their house. One afternoon, while out exploring, they discovered a deserted house that appeared to have had the front half ripped away, ''as if a large claw had reached out of the sky and torn it clean off.''
When Roy is killed in a car accident later that summer, the Smith home is also ripped in two. Alison's parents, stunned and gasping, clutch at the rope of their faith in God. Her father prays to his small plastic statue of St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes), asking him to explain how such a thing could happen. After all, every morning of his children's lives he has appeared at their bedsides and touched their skin with relics to bless them. When Alison asked Roy why their father did this, he told her: ''He's got to name us, like Adam named all the animals. To keep track of them.''
But of course a father, no matter how much we imagine his godlike powers, cannot save his son, nor can he protect his daughter from losing her faith, a rift that leaves her parents on one side of the house and Alison on the other.
''Losing your faith in a world where God is all around you is a precarious business. When God shows his face on a daily basis to your friends and neighbors, it is, on some level, impossible to stop believing in him. Instead I felt that God chose to exclude me from his world. Since I was the only one to lose faith, to stop hearing Christ's voice, I thought perhaps it was my fault that Roy had left us. I thought I was being punished for some unknown sin. I had learned early in my Catholic career that one could sin silently, in one's heart. One could even sin without ever discovering what one had done or why it was wrong. What had I done, I asked myself, to make God disappear and take Roy with him?''
To atone for this imagined sin, Alison sneaks out to the fort at night to leave half her dinner for Roy. As if denying herself sustenance could somehow make up for Roy's death, or assuage the sadness that is literally wasting her to the bone. The food miraculously disappears, consumed by a stray dog named Shadow, a connection the reader easily makes but young Alison can't bear to.
''Someone -- or something -- ate it. I saw this as a sign. A message from Roy. During the day, I was just a normal schoolgirl. I did my homework. I went to work at the convent. I seemed to move on from this terrible tragedy. But at night, the distance between the living and the dead changes. At night, we persuade ourselves that the most impossible things are possible.''
By daylight life is different. A new girl appears in school, an artist, who turns Alison on to Colette and Sappho and other ''slim volumes of poetry,'' and soon a clandestine romance begins.
Smith's strength is in rendering the immediacy of grief and the wavering of religious conviction in the face of crisis. But because there is such a strong narrative pull, she sets up certain expectations that aren't completely met. We have no sense at the story's end whether Alison's affair with her classmate was a case of youthful schoolgirl love or something more. Was it an awakening, or simply an erotic byproduct of her grief?
Still, her evocation of a shattered family attempting to rebuild itself is unflinching. And in her portrait of the girl she was we can see the writer she became.
Elissa Schappell is the editor at large of Tin House magazine and the author of ''Use Me,'' a novel.
GRAPHIC: Photos: Alison Smith (Photo by Jerry Bauer/Scribner); Martha Tod Dudman (Photo by Stephen Rappaport/Simon & Schuster)
ABA--Bookselling this Week - March 11, 2004
Name All the Animals: A Memoir of Grief and Redemption
March 11, 2004
Author Alison Smith
Given Alison Smith's background -- she hails from a long line of devout Catholics, who were blue-collar workers and teachers -- she was expected to become an educator herself, get married, keep her faith. She wasn't supposed to become a writer. To complicate things further, in her finely crafted memoir, Name All the Animals (Scribner), she writes about her brother Roy's accidental death, a subject the family rarely discussed, and her first lesbian experiences at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls. Smith also broke with family tradition when she traded her religious faith for the temple of knowledge, preferring Jane Austen to Jesus.
"Both of my parents were not too keen on me becoming a writer," said Smith speaking on the phone from Rochester, New York, her hometown and the backdrop for Name All the Animals. "It was not in our culture. We became schoolteachers. My dad worked at the factory. They thought that [my becoming a writer] was a terribly bad idea."
Not that this caused a family rift or stopped her proud father from cheering at a reading in Rochester, or from bringing along 55 of his closest friends to show off his daughter's moving new memoir. "He's so excited. He really, really loves the book." Sadly, Smith's mother passed away last April.
BTW again caught up with Smith, who's 35, after a recent reading at the KGB Bar in New York City. A sort of elfin towhead, she conveyed a similar humor and earnestness when she made the post-reading rounds as she does with narrative voice in Name All the Animals.
Name All the Animals is Smith's debut book. She has contributed to McSweeney's and was resident at Yaddo and MacDowell colonies, and has won a hailstorm of positive recognition. Name All the Animals is a Top Ten March/April 2004 Book Sense 76 pick. Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store had this to say about it, "This extraordinary account of the way the author's family coped with the accidental death of her brother and her own secret homosexuality is gripping, unsentimental, and amazingly accomplished. If Smith is able to do this in a first book, I can't wait for the next." New York Times' Janet Maslin called the book "literary and precise."
When she was 15, Smith's older brother Roy was killed in a car accident. He drove away in the rain and never came back, Smith told the audience at KGB. They spent so much time together building forts and squabbling over dishes that their mother referred to both of them with one nickname -- "Alroy." Smith responded to his death by burrowing deep inside herself, fluttering "between the dead and the living." And by reading feverishly, anything and everything. Along with Sense and Sensibility, there was A Syllabus of Mortuary Jurisprudence, Elizabethan Puritanism, Early Norse History, and many others. Smith essentially wrote and read herself back into the world.
During the creation of the book, she tried to not let herself get pigeonholed. "When writing, I didn't think about terms -- coming-of-age, grief memoir, coming out memoir -- I just tried to stick close to my experience." Smith explained how after the book is on the shelves "labels help so people can easily identify if they might connect with the book, but they don't help you when you're writing."
Smith took six years to complete the memoir, so naturally there were some significant revelations along the way. After 18 drafts, the first of which was an 800-page behemoth that included "everything from information about my grandparents' emigration from Denmark to what I had for breakfast," she whittled away about 500 pages and, Smith told BTW, "I discovered that I thought a lot about what my parents lost and not as much about what I lost." She finally got that her suffering was as important as her parents'. "Somewhere in year three I figured it out. I'm a slow learner," she said.
Knowing this led to one of the significant threads in the memoir and an additional impetus for Smith's telling the story of her adolescent life. Much of the book addresses family, identity, coming-of-age, grief, sexuality, but one theme Smith felt didn't get its due elsewhere was how brothers and sisters mourn. Smith explained, "I wanted to write for siblings because there's not enough attention paid to sibling grief. There's so much focus on what parents lose because they lose so much, but siblings are often put in position to make up for what parents lost and they sort of become the handmaids to their parents' grief. Siblings also lose so much."
But this is not to say that Name All the Animals, which takes its name from a biblical reference, is all pain all the time. Far from it. Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls is rife with comic foibles and misadventures involving snogging behind Our Lady of the Broken Toes, discovering the sisters' secret pool, and falling asleep with a girlfriend in the dean of discipline's bed. The nuns are depicted in all their multi-dimensional glory wavering among hilarity, fathoms-deep sympathy, and hellfire and brimstone homophobia. But they work collectively to gently and sometimes not so gently nudge her back into the world, particularly Smith's favorite, the unconventional Sister Agnes. Sister Aggie dubs Smith "Blondie" and literally drags her from her work, the Convent switchboard Smith operated as a work study student, to rouse her from melancholia. When Smith hesitates to leave her post, "Sister Aggie stopped, spun around, and stared at [her]. She leaned forward, hunched over her spindly cane, and motioned for [Smith] to bend over toward her. 'Fuck the phone, Blondie,'" Aggie tells her.
Smith told BTW her loving portrayal of the sisters was in response to all the bad press they usually get. "You always here about nuns being extremely strict disciplinarians, harsh, and into corporal punishment," said Smith, who was puzzled by this. "I've met many nuns in my life and I've never met a dud," she said, with a laugh. "They devote their lives to what are often politically radical ideas, such as the social and economic issues they address with their work with the poor, despite the fact that they're part of the Catholic Church, which is ... conservative."
Many memoirs that deal with grief -- Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart, Barbara Lazear Ascher's Landscape Without Gravity: A Memoir of Grief, Genevieve Jurgensen's The Disappearance -- typically maintain their somber tone throughout, but Name All the Animals presents a balanced, fully wrought representation of the life of a fiercely imaginative girl, who happens to fall in love with another girl. "I see it as a love story," Smith told BTW. "I was madly in love with Teresa Dinovelli, and I was lucky because the first person I kissed, and everything, was somebody who was my peer, who I felt so emotionally and intellectually connected to. It was true love, and when fumbling around in the dark in high school, it's rare to get that."
As much as readers might want to know what happens in the next chapter of Smith's life, she reported that she currently doesn't have plans for a sequel. She does, however, have plans for fiction, which she sees as a liberating genre. "I love that you get to make everything up," she said. And she doesn't necessarily like to know where she's going ahead of time. "Getting lost is a big part of my writing process -- you've just got to follow the voices, the characters wherever they take you," she explained. "You've got to trust them, no matter how many times they may lead you astray. You go down a lot of dead ends before you find the road that takes you to your narrative structure. And that's okay, because all those wrong turns are useful -- they give you a greater intimacy with your subject. I'm writing a novel now and I'm having fun getting lost." --Karen Schechner
The Miami Herald - February 29, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: M; Pg. 7
LENGTH: 679 words
HEADLINE: One child lost and one child found; A teen grows up as she battles with despair in this spellbinding memoir.; MEMOIR
BYLINE: BY ELSBETH LINDNER
NAME ALL THE ANIMALS.
Alison Smith. Scribner. 319 pages. $24.
Alison Smith's beloved older brother Roy died in a car accident when she was 15. Her mother had been in the habit of calling both children Alroy, so close were they, a club of two. Now Alison was alone, bearing not only her own grief but her parents' fear and dashed hopes. To her father, she became ''all I have left.'' At school she turned into an untouchable, ''the-girl-whose-brother-died. '' Smith's struggles to reconcile her devastated self with her family and the world are the subject of this delicate, mournful, unblinking memoir.
Shielded from the graphic details of the car crash, she spent the next 18 months patching together something resembling the quiet life of a Catholic teenager in Rochester, N.Y. After her parents' paroxysms of grief and the neighborhood's efforts at commiseration, Smith returned to her convent school, where the nuns were watchful and kind. Slowly a sort of numb continuity settled, and her father resumed his early morning ritual of blessing his child with a relic, naming her parts -- ''Bless her mind. Bless her throat. Bless her hands.' ' -- in the same way that Adam had named all the animals, to keep track of them. Nevertheless, absurdities and awful reminders of the family's loss intruded, such as the encyclopedias ordered for Roy which continued to arrive with unstoppable regularity, like unbidden memories.
Smith's loss was adult in scale yet in other respects she was still a child, anxious for her classmates' approval. One particular friendship, with a girl named Terry, sustained her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship became sexual, adding the electricity of first love to Alison's emotional tangle. When the liaison became known to the nuns, they even excused this transgression, but her mother's denunciation -- ''lesbians go to hell'' -- pushed her over the edge. Alison finally chose to read the newspaper article supplying the details of Roy's tortured last moments. That searing knowledge exposed as a lie her father's often-repeated assurance that God would give her anything she wanted, and Alison's most fundamental underpinnings -- her parents and her belief -- were knocked away.
Her crisis deepened. She became anorexic; she dealt a crushing blow to her mother by declaring her lost faith; and on the third anniversary of Roy's death she flirted with death at the exact same spot, where the guardrail was still broken. But there would be no symmetrical accident or dramatic resolution. Instead, she eventually discovered the capacity to reconnect with what she and Roy had shared in life and reached a different, sad, but finally tolerable place.
As rites of passage go, Smith's was violent and punishing, yet it is described with cool clarity by a writer of formidable control. Mawkishness, knee-jerk emotions, self-indulgence of any sort are scrupulously avoided in her narrative, which searches for truth and meaning where, her young self began to realize, there might be none.
A number of the book's more numinous scenes take place at night, as she roamed childhood haunts she had shared with Roy, feeding the stray dog he had befriended, attempting to reconnect with his spirit. Her lucid prose is especially effective at evoking these twilight communions, efforts to penetrate the anguish of irreversible separation while breaking out from the suffocation of the family home. Such simplicity of metaphor, combined with lambent depictions of childhood, are characteristic of Smith's gift. Her rapt focus casts an undeniable spell.
Name All the Animalsis an aching testimony to girlhood interrupted. It is also the understated literary expression of a detached, probing intelligence capable of discerning beauty, profundity, occasionally even comedy in the details of a life redefined by tragedy. Although an account of piercing pain, of voyaging into dark places alone, this memoir speaks in a soft voice. It is a survivor's story written by the girl next door.
Elsbeth Lindner is a writer in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
The New York Times - February 23, 2004, Monday, Late Edition - Final
Section E; Page 6; Column 1; The Arts/Cultural Desk
LENGTH: 957 words
HEADLINE: BOOKS OF THE TIMES;
Two Traumatic Adolescent Free Falls: One Wild, One Wrenching
BYLINE: By JANET MASLIN
NAME ALL THE ANIMALS
By Alison Smith
319 pages. Scribner. $24.
EXPECTING TO FLY
A Sixties Reckoning
By Martha Tod Dudman
243 pages. Simon & Schuster. $23.
Of two new memoirs describing troubled schoolgirl years, Alison Smith's is the more literary and precise. It is also the more wrenching because its central event is the death of Ms. Smith's adored brother. Martha Tod Dudman's is less ambitious and more lighthearted since its main concern is the author's woozy rebelliousness against her parents and prep school. But Ms. Dudman, whose own story of trauma ("Augusta, Gone") is already behind her, has a gift for making small details sound scarily, embarrassingly true.
Ms. Smith constructs "Name All the Animals" out of graceful vignettes describing her faith and her family. At the start of the book, in 1984, her 18-year-old brother, Roy, gets into his car and heads for work, never to return. "You could almost smell the pity," she writes, as the police arrive at her front door to say the fateful words -- "Mrs. Smith, there's been an accident" -- to her mother.
Ms. Smith was 15. Her girlishness is underscored not only by an early description of ice skating, but also by her account of the last important thing she told Roy: that she had just had her first period. The conjoined thoughts of her blood and Roy's attest to the careful, sometimes self-conscious ways in which "Name All the Animals" is constructed. Its title comes from a reference to Adam in the Garden of Eden, linked to the way in which Alison's father clings to his Roman Catholicism through terrible times. This metaphor also gets a careful workout or two.
Ms. Smith's faith proves shakier. "What had I done, I asked myself, to make God disappear and take Roy with him?" she writes. The contemplation of that question sends her into a period of paralyzing grief. "I passed entire days tracking the course of a single dust mote across the basement," she recounts with the kind of exacting, enhanced power of recollection that colors the book. But if its smaller details are sometimes precious, Ms. Smith has no trouble conveying the larger sensations that she experienced. She watches herself, almost as a stranger, being transformed into "the Girl Whose Brother Died."
Much of "Name All the Animals" concerns Ms. Smith's experiences at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls. Surrounded by nuns and plagued by secret doubts, she steps outside the bounds of the permissible to have a schoolgirl romance with another schoolgirl. "It woke me from a long sleep," she writes. "For this first time since Roy left I wanted something." And the affair becomes part of the way she jolts herself back to life.
Roy remains real throughout the book, invoked at well-chosen intervals through memory and through his sister's acts of devotion. (She saves food for him. She regards even his worn-out running shoes with tenderness and reverence.) And the idea of punishment for her transgressions is equally substantial, giving the reader a sense of how much was at stake for her as she tried to regain her bearings. "Hell was a real place for us, as real as the next neighborhood," she writes. "In our insular Catholic world, hell practically had its own ZIP code."
Ms. Dudman describes a different kind of purgatory at the start of "Expecting to Fly." Here is Grandma, remembering Woodstock, wondering how she turned into a 50-year-old professional fund-raiser who goes for a walk wearing a pedometer every day. How did she get here? And is it possible to turn back the clock, at least in memory? This recollection of her first experiences with sex, drugs and rebellion in the 1960's manages to accomplish exactly that.
"Augusta, Gone" described Ms. Dudman's dealings with her hell-raising teenage daughter. As it appears here, Augusta was a chip off the maternal block. When Ms. Dudman's parents found out about her dope smoking, she remembers thinking: "I couldn't look at them. They were so stupid." As she courts expulsion from the tony Madeira School outside Washington (it worked; she was expelled), she shows up stoned. ("In Creative Writing class I feel like I've never been so creative! ")
And when she makes it to Antioch College, she captures the ambience simply but perfectly: "One of us will point at something -- the way the trees are, the color of the rock, and then the other one will say Yeah Oh Yeah I see what you mean or something and then we both laugh. It's great. Sometimes I go to class."
Ms. Dudman grew up in Washington with a summer place in Maine and a father who covered the war in Vietnam for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The political arena is hip and fun for her at first. (Her volunteer work for Eugene McCarthy becomes central to her social life.) Then it's not. (Her father is captured in Cambodia and remains a prisoner for a while.)
She is candid and even amusing about her general obliviousness to the wider world in those days. But it is clear that she now writes as someone keenly aware of how her actions appear in hindsight. Ms. Dudman eventually discovered, by way of Haight-Ashbury and other detours, that she would rather not spend her life in a daze.
In a risky maneuver that actually works, "Expecting to Fly" stages a brief confrontation between the two Marthas, young and old. If this went on for more than a page it might be painful, but it is brief. "I'm you after all the drugs and the adventures," the author imagines telling her schoolgirl counterpart. "I 'm you after all the craziness is past. I'm you with what you've left me."
And: "Wrinkles? Of course I've got wrinkles. You laid me out in the sun for hours and hours to wrinkle me up like this."
GRAPHIC: Photos: Alison Smith (Photo by Jerry Bauer/Scribner); Martha Tod Dudman (Photo by Stephen Rappaport/Simon & Schuster)
People - February 23, 2004
SECTION: PICKS & PANS/BOOKS; Pg. 45
LENGTH: 243 words
HEADLINE: Name All the Animals; by Alison Smith
BYLINE: Ellen Shapiro
BODY: CRITIC'S CHOICE
Smith's vigorously Catholic family might not have been accomplished, but they certainly knew how to keep the faith. In their loving but insular world, not believing in God was "like saying you didn't believe in oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." Fifteen-year-old Alison and her older brother Roy would wake up each morning as their father blessed them with holy relics, and Alison routinely had visions of Jesus, whom she considered her most intimate friend.
But her faith is horribly challenged when, weeks before he plans to start college, Roy is suddenly killed in a car crash. This intimate and quietly piercing memoir describes three years of Alison's adolescence in Rochester, N.Y., as she struggles with her grief. At first she is unmoored--refusing food, compulsively reading and aimlessly roaming the halls of Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls, where the nuns prescribe prayer and a stint at the state hospital teaching lobotomy patients how to sew. A respite comes from the ancient Sister Aggie, who shows Alison how to put her head down the laundry chute and uncork a good, therapeutic scream. But it is not until she begins a clandestine love affair with a more worldly girl at school that Alison starts to emerge from her brother's shadow. With a clear eye and an unsentimental heart, Smith writes a deeply moving elegy about devastating loss and how it can be redeemed.
GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT JONES, Smith's impressive debut traces the line between grief and faith following a fatal accident.; COLOR PHOTO: STILL-LIFE: JOHN
Newsday (New York), February 22, 2004 Sunday, ALL EDITIONS
SECTION: FANFARE; Pg. D32
LENGTH: 829 words
HEADLINE: MEMOIRS: A Death In the Family
BYLINE: By Judith Long. Judith Long is the copy editor at The Nation magazine.
NAME ALL THE ANIMALS, by Alison Smith. Scribner. 319 pp., $24.
The last conversation 15-year-old Alison Smith had with her 18-year-old brother, Roy, went like this: "Loser." "Dweeb." "Mutant." "Moron!" - a mock argument over who'd do the dishes. Early next morning, on his way to his summer job, Roy, driving the family camper-van in a downpour, was hit by a car skidding into his lane. Both drivers were killed.
Alison and Roy were so close their parents called them both by the same nickname, Alroy. In her memoir of the three years following her brother's death, "Name All the Animals," Smith details her new life as "the sister without a brother," the surviving half of Alroy. A chronicle of grief, the book is not depressing, nor is it a "coping with loss" book. It's the sweet, sad, often oddly funny story of three years in the life of an adolescent girl and a loving family that's lost a large part of itself.
Alison's father seeks consolation in his devout faith, consulting his statue of St. Jude, continuing to bless Alroy (as they still call her) every morning with relics and telling her, "Baby, you're all we have left now." Her mother outfits a new camper-van just like the old one and hikes alone wearing a backpack loaded with the encyclopedia volumes that, heartbreakingly, keep arriving in the mail for Roy.
Alison returns to Our Lady of Mercy school, where she is now "the-girl-whose-brother-died," giving her an uncomfortable status among the other girls. The nuns are kind: An old nun who swears a blue streak and calls her "Blondie" shows Alison how to scream down the laundry chute to let off steam; another charges her to guard a huge secret - the nuns have a swimming pool hidden in the woods.
Alison keeps up a facade, but she's sinking into anorexia and delusions of keeping Roy near. She spends a lot of time in a fort they once built, where she leaves Roy the food from her dinner plate. She's losing her formerly strong faith. She has crippling fears and waits for "the next terrible thing." She roams the neighborhood at night, visits the scarred guardrail where Roy died.
At last, she's propelled into taking a step back into the world she inhabited before Roy "left," as she terms it: Romance finds her. It's a compelling moment of first love - stolen kisses behind a statue of Our Lady of the Broken Toes by day and 20-mile bike rides for trysts by night. It's not Love Conquers Despair, but it's a start.
"Name All the Animals" refers to Adam naming the creatures in the Garden of Eden. To Smith it means speaking of things no matter how painful. Bravely and beautifully, Smith names all her animals.
GRAPHIC: Photos - Bookcover 'NAME ALL THE ANIMALS'
Metro Weekly (DC), February 19, 2004
The Name of Life
Alison Smith's lesbian memoir ''Name All the Animals''
by Alex MacLennan
This article was first published on 02/19/2004
It's tempting to present Name All The Animals, the new memoir by Alison Smith, as a series of suggestive clichés. Imagine Catholic schoolgirls in plaid skirts, knee-highs, and buttoned blouses watched over by stern but loving nuns. Watch them gossip about graduation, who will make the "Virgin Court, " the girl-whose-brother-died, and, naturally, lesbian love. Fun? Sure. But it would also be a serious disservice to the lovely, heartbreaking truth of Smith¹s memoir, or the soft-toned accomplishments of the book.
Name All The Animals begins with the dual events of Alison's first period and her brother's sudden, accidental death, and ultimately weaves together a moving meditation on youth, loss and growing up. It ebbs and flows like a tide --like grief -- offering up touchstones as diverse as Our Lady of the Broken Toes, half-eaten Oreos, a Valentine's Day party at a mental ward, saints and relics, paintings of sunflowers, a grease-stained bag sequestered in a purse, and the image of a girl reading a bible while working in a photo booth in the empty parking lot of a suburban mall.
That girl in the parking lot is Alison's first love, and their scenes together do tingle and brighten each page, but the same-sex element is never overplayed. Alison is struggling through an impossible, unacceptable loss, searching for an identity that has been seemingly stolen away. While her burgeoning sexuality is nuanced and sweetly portrayed, it is always tied intricately to the memoir's true core.
The book's structure also serves to increase and sustain tension. The first section ends: "And even as my parents prayed that the Next Terrible Thing would not come, it did. "
There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through the book when all has seemingly fallen apart and Alison is attempting to reconnect with her life. The various threads of mourning, faith, community, isolation, transgression and love all come together as a daughter watches her parents sleep. "For a small sliver of time, as I sat in Mother's wicker rocker hugging my knees, they became my children -- scared, hungry, bereft, and young, too young for all that had happened to them. " She goes on to wonder how they are able to sleep in the face of her brother's death, and realizes, with a heartbreaking settling of weight, how much they are depending on her.
Smith also skillfully mines the distance between church-good and church-bad. The expanse between the powder-soft comfort of an older nun's consoling embrace and the finality of a question like "Don't you know lesbians will burn in hell? " is sometimes harrowing, yet this Catholic Church is also protective, giving, and kind. What is remarkable, and refreshing, is the even-handed presentation. The church is not unquestionably evil. A mother's hard words are the result of her own pain rather than malicious intent. Mean high school girls are simply mean high school girls.
There are a number of recurring images in the novel. Some seem borne of editorial laziness (a friend of Alison's is described, repeatedly, by a ponytail that is asked to convey far too much), while some are vital and important. These meaningful repeated images evolve throughout the novel, echoing Alison's own process of grief. A backyard dog. An empty plate. Camping and an iconic camper van. The backyard fort. And eyes. The author always introduces us to important people through their eyes.
Name All The Animals opens with one such image - an abandoned house, sheared in half, hidden in a stand of woods. It is a potent image, made more powerful by Smith's writing, and the simple, truthful way it is presented. Smith never plays up the melodrama. She lets her journey stand alone.
Daily Hampshire Gazette (REVIEW) - February 18, 2004
A sister's account of loss beyond measure
BY LARRY PARNASS
February 18, 2004
Daily Hampshire Gazette
As a teen, Alison Smith heard herself referred to, from time to time, as ''the Smith girl.'' The shorthand carried a long explanation: She was the one left behind, alone with her parents, after her brother died in a car wreck.
The ''Smith girl'' phrase may have laid the groundwork for the book Smith, now in her 30s, has written. The world around her in Rochester, N.Y., in the mid-1980s was telling her she stood apart. She eventually found the words to express how.
They lie in a memoir, ''Name All the Animals,'' that is destined, because of its elegance and honesty, to be one of the most talked-about books this year among people who treasure real stories, intelligently told.
The book's title refers to Adam's quest, in the Garden of Eden, to assign names to all of God's creations. By selecting that title, Smith suggests she too started from scratch, after her brother's death, in a world that was new.
''The Smith girl'' lived, as we all do, in a community where people know things about you, even if they understand nothing. As ''Name All the Animals'' so poignantly reveals, we can each of us live in ignorance of ourselves, until the truth finds a way out.
In this brilliant debut, Smith charts something as illuminating as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' famous treatises on the stages of grief. What Kubler-Ross discovered in others' experience, Smith found, after great effort, in her own.
This memoir's richness lies in Smith's unsentimental accounting of how her world changed when her older brother Roy, with whom she shared a rare bond, died in a car crash on July 27, 1984. He was 18. She was 15. Childhood deals blows to all, some direct, some glancing. Smith recounts the devastation of her loss by minutely detailing the days, weeks and months that followed her brother's death.
Readers come to understand that for much of that time, emotional scar tissue freezes this girl. Grief silently hollows her out, and dampens her ability, for years, to fill herself back in, or to allow herself joy. Even in the best circumstances, these can be years of personal trials for young people. In Smith's telling, the sorrow that presses down upon this circumscribed family, and upon her directly, becomes in some ways just another part of the challenge of growing up.
She describes it all gamely, as if her lot is no better or worse than that of any other 15-year-old, or 16-year-old. Many readers are remarking on the miraculous voice that Smith found to tell this story. It is humble and matter-of-fact.
With her own sort of literary side-scanning sonar, Smith conveys the immensity of grief without putting her hands all over it.
What results is a quiet story whose drama is as well-placed as the rungs of a ladder. As Smith's teen years advance, she remains in a form of emotional arrest. It's likely no one knew then how much danger she was in. She refuses to let go of rituals she shared with her brother, and now inhabits alone.
Things change when she reaches the age Roy never got beyond, and on a summer's dawn steers herself to the scene of his death, where she fills her mind with what it was he saw on his final morning.
What's quietly intriguing in ''Name All the Animals'' is the emergence of Smith's own passion. Life turned this child into an observer who was little-seen: blindly protected by traumatized parents afraid of losing their remaining child, sheltered as if by rote by nuns in her Catholic school and pitied by those around who suspected the loneliness of ''the Smith girl.''
As the child watches, and as she privately communes with ruins of forts and haunts she shared with her brother, everyday dramas play out around her. Her father and mother clutch their religious faith past the point of fracture. Her classmates, on the verge of womanhood, search for ways to distinguish themselves, stepping out from behind the school uniforms that would make them all the same.
Religious faith - the use of it, the futility of it, or its simple texture - propels Smith's story at many turns. Along with chronicling one family's response to tragedy, ''Name All the Animals'' captures the author's Catholic girlhood, with no shortage of humor. A part-time job regularly took young Alison to the phone switchboard at a religious order's motherhouse, where she met an aging nun named Sister Agnes James.
That sister is one of the memoir's great comic characters - an unruly renegade with a penchant for truth-telling. When she reads from her memoir, Smith likes to find passages about Sister Agnes.
''She just makes me so happy,'' Smith said in an interview last week. ''This is a book about grief, but also about triumph, and families, and hope.''
Smith tells her story using all the tools of a novelist, save the ability to make things up. She has changed details and names to protect people's privacy. And she appears to have filled in fine points in tiny, decades-old physical gestures with a level of detail that would test even the best memory. Then again, it may all be true.
''The vivid detail comes from an obsessive level of interest in this period of my life,'' she said.
Smith said she believes that writers owe readers not just meaningful stories, but well-observed ones. She says she wanted readers not just to follow her story, but to feel it on their skin - sensing whether the air is hot or cold, for instance, or smelling her mother's perfume. She recalls speaking with another writer about a lunch that was mentioned. Was that a lunch of a peanut butter sandwich, or a bowl of miso soup? she says she asked.
''You owe it to the reader to say which it was,'' she said. ''So that they can be transported. That's the highest moral imperative. Memoirists shouldn't be let off the hook.''
Her sentences are direct and detailed. Chapter 2 begins,
When the officers came by the house at seven that morning, the only sound was the rain on the roof, the water rushing out of the gutters.
A sampling of how other chapters begin: ''I spent the next Saturday at the library, and as usual, Father drove me and waited in the lobby, but that afternoon he didn't drive me home afterward.'' ''I did not know what possessed the Sisters of Mercy to open a school for girls.'' ''Terry gave me a picture postcard of Colette.'' ''We stood in the foyer of the Henderson home, an exact replica of the one at our house across the street, and I asked her the question.''
This is an under-voiced story that finds a way to cry out.
Last week, Smith was in Rochester, for a reading at a bookstore to which her father brought 55 friends. The hometown paper, the Democrat and Chronicle, which had printed a graphic story of Roy's suffering the morning after he died, welcomed Smith's return with a section-front story.
For most of the last nine years, Smith lived in the Valley, where she wrote all of ''Name All the Animals.'' While she has since taken up quarters on Park Slope in Brooklyn, Smith says she feels she will eventually be pulled back to the Valley, after soaking up the urban world of subways and museums. She will be in the area next week for two appearances - at Food for Thought Books in Amherst at 7 p.m. on Feb. 26 and at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27.
Today, Smith has moved on to a novel. ''It's extremely fun to write fiction right now. I get to run around and play and try a lot of points of view on,'' she said.
She must feel weightless, after using a rare talent for storytelling to let others briefly carry one life's unique burden.
Daily Hampshire Gazette (BIO) - February 18, 2004
Author credits local groups for help in telling her story of loss
BY LARRY PARNASS STAFF WRITER
February 18, 2004
Daily Hampshire Gazette
NORTHAMPTON - In her memoir ''Name All the Animals,'' Alison Smith thanks three people for letting her write in their living rooms.
The mention conjures up a picture of an itinerant writer applying herself to her mission, even if she lacked a roof - much less a room - of her own.
The author's gratitude is actually directed to the two Northampton writing groups she credits with helping her shape a true story that was horrific to endure, then difficult to tell.
Smith, who lived in the Valley from 1994 until last year, spent six years finding a way to explain what happened in her family, and in her own life as a teenager, after her beloved older brother Roy died at dawn on July 27, 1984, in a head-on collision on a rain-slicked road.
''I would not have been able to write that book without Northampton,'' Smith said last week from Rochester, N.Y., as she began a national tour to promote her book, published by Scribner. ''I don't feel like I've left Northampton.''
In those Northampton living rooms, Smith recalled, she labored alongside other writers during an evening's enforced silence to get words onto paper. Then she and others shared their results aloud.
Page by page at sessions led by Carol Edelstein, Robin Barber and Dori Ostermiller - and in countless hours in her Crescent Street room - Smith worked through 18 drafts of her memoir.
The ''rigorous and open-hearted'' advice she received from Valley writers helped her persevere, Smith said. ''You sit in a group and write together,'' she said of those meetings. ''It's very unique to the Valley.''
While it took Smith many attempts to find the right way to tell her story, her agent needed only days to find a publisher, land a six-figure advance and arrange for overseas sales. After sending the manuscript to publishers one Monday last February, Smith's agent had offers by Wednesday.
On the following Monday, publishers bid against each other for the right to bring the book out with Scribner the winner. Within the next week, Smith says, rights for publication in seven other countries had been assigned.
Joan Barberich, the events coordinator for Food for Thought Books in Amherst, says she admires Smith's prowess as a storyteller. Though the book recounts a horrific time in the author's life, the events are narrated with humility and simplicity. ''I was so touched by the artfulness of the way it was put together,'' Barberich said. ''I really feel she crafted it with an artist's talent.''
Ostermiller, the writing-group leader in Northampton who worked with Smith, said she could tell early on, as Smith shared passages of her book, that the author was creating an exceptional work.
''Every now and then you get someone extraordinary,'' she said of Smith. ''She was definitely in that category. She's just an immensely talented woman and a hard worker.
''She put her blood, sweat and tears into this book, I can vouch for that,'' Ostermiller said. ''It's great to have been a part of it.''
In the coming month, Smith will be speaking about her book and meeting readers in events from Boston to San Francisco. She returns to the Valley from her new home in Brooklyn next week, with readings planned at Food for Thought Books in Amherst at 7 p.m. on Feb. 26 and at the Broadside Bookshop in Northampton at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27.
One of the publishers who bid for ''Name All the Animals'' offered Smith a three-book deal. She declined it, saying she didn't feel it was right to sell something she hadn't yet created.
Smith said her next work, now under way, will be a novel. She has been writing fiction for years, including years as a student at Brown University and stints at the Yaddo and MacDowell writers' colonies.
To write ''Name All the Animals,'' Smith said, she struggled to find a new form.
''Even though I had a story I wanted to tell, I really had no knowledge of how to write a book,'' she said.
As readers of ''Name All the Animals'' learn, Smith knew from an early age where to go for knowledge - the shelves of libraries. She says she consumed books about writing, studying up on things like how to structure chapters and how to use dialogue.
After three years of writing - about halfway in - Smith says she got her project fully on track. One breakthrough came, she said, when she realized that her focus would not be on what her parents lost in their son's death, real as that was.
''Siblings are usually relegated to a secondary position, and (are expected to) make up for what the parents lost,'' she said. ''I really fell for this.''
In the end, though, she found that her story lay in the world she came to inhabit, after her brother's crash in 1984. The memoir describes in detail the first three years after his death, and the author's discovery, from within the confines of a strictly observant Catholic home, that she is homosexual.
''If you're going to write a memoir, you really to have to be the main character,'' she said. ''You become the vehicle through which readers can understand the issues you're writing about. ... The only story I had the right to tell is my own.''
Larry Parnass, arts editor, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Newsweek - February 16, 2004 U.S. Edition
SECTION: BOOKS; Pg. 55
HEADLINE: Living to Tell the Tale
BYLINE: Sean Smith
HIGHLIGHT: Two first-time authors with harrowing memoirs
Most people's lives are fascinating only to themselves, but that doesn't stop newbie writers from churning out memoirs that showcase mostly their own narcissism. Alison Smith's "Name All the Animals" sounds like the usual--a brother's death, anorexia, a coming-of-age attraction to other girls--yet Smith writes with such assured distance that this quiet examination of grief reads more like biography than autobiography, and displays a novelist's gift for revealing character through small gesture rather than grand speech. The title refers to the story of Adam's giving each of the world's creatures a name. With this memoir, Smith has earned one of her own.
Entertainment Weekly - February 13, 2004
SECTION: BOOKS; Pg. 75
LENGTH: 185 words
HEADLINE: Name All The Animals
BYLINE: Jennifer Reese
NAME ALL THE ANIMALS Alison Smith Memoir (Scribner, $ 24)
Smith's happy childhood came to an abrupt end when she was 15 and her 18-year-old brother, Roy, died in a car crash. Shy and studious, Alison and Roy had been so close that their parents had called them Alroy. "While I waited for Roy to come back, my parents waited for the Next Terrible Thing," Smith writes in her strong, sad memoir of the three years following the tragedy. Roy didn't come back, of course, but Smith's parents did not wait in vain. Raised a devout Catholic, Smith lost her faith, which seemed to devastate her mom even more than Roy's death. Compounding the heresy, Smith fell in love with another girl, and the two were discovered in bed by a nun at her school. ("Lesbians will burn in hell," Smith's mother told her.) Smith isn't always convincing when she tries to tie the pieces of her adolescence together: Roy dies, ergo she becomes anorexic? Well, it might have happened anyway. But she's a beautiful writer, funny and wise, and she has made an unusually powerful book out of her grief. B+ --JR
GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO: SMITH: JERRY BAUER
The Minneapolis Star Tribune - February 8, 2004
Review: 'Name All the Animals' gives voice to grief
Andrea Hoag, Special to the Star Tribune
Published February 8, 2004
In a memoir with details so distressing they long smolder in the reader's mind, author Alison Smith often writes of "the summer Roy left" as if her brother actually might return someday. Just a few months shy of college, however, Roy drove away one morning and was killed in a car accident on his way to work. His sudden absence was too much for 15-year-old Alison to understand -- then or now.
Writing about grief is a cumbersome thing, but in "Name All the Animals" Smith proves she can handle her subject with great delicacy. Raised in a staunchly Catholic family where "Christ was more real to me than the children I met at school," she withdrew and became a witness to the suffering around her. But when Roy left, Jesus abandoned her, too.
Each person in her family reacted differently to the tragedy. Her father sought comfort in his unwavering religious beliefs, but kept his now only child cooped up for her own protection. ("You're all I have left now," he would repeat as a daily beseechment.)
As for her mother, Smith "watched her age. For the first time I saw her taut body sag . . . She would look for Roy around every corner . . . in the face of every young man. For the rest of her life she'd chase this phantom. Like so many women, she was defined by her children. And she had let one of them die."
In another haunting scene, an unsuspecting salesman delivers the first installment of the nonrefundable set of encyclopedias purchased for Roy that will keep arriving long after his death. Smith possesses a genius for rendering the complicated layers of grief:
"He was part of a near-extinct breed, those people who had somehow missed the newspaper article, the television coverage, the local radio reports . . . The Before-People. The Before-People had me in their thrall . . ."
Just as the particulars about Roy's death are kept from Alison, readers, too, are made to wait for the more macabre details. The morning after the accident, a thoughtful neighbor raced across their lawn to collect their newspaper to prevent them from reading newly publicized information, but he was too late for Smith's dad:
"As he read, his hands began to shake. The shaking got so bad he could no longer hold the paper. It dropped to the floor . . . He tried to walk and he fell to his knees. He began to crawl. His arms and legs tangled in the hall rug. He called Roy's name several times, and then his voice dissolved into a long wail. He clawed at his T-shirt."
Alison, not Roy, is the main character in this memoir. But the memories of their inventive juvenile games and neighborhood adventures form a poignant backdrop to Smith's narrative.
At her Catholic school, "the Girl Whose Brother Died" begins a taboo love affair. This stirring account is rendered with the heart-stopping excitement of puberty's sexual floundering. Just when readers see a bit of happiness ahead for the young protagonist, however, Alison's mother discovers the liaison and threatens eternal damnation.
"Name All the Animals" leaves readers hoping that the courageous author triumphs over the heartaches of her past -- and returns to tell us all about it.
Andrea Hoag also reviews for Publishers Weekly, the Women's Review of Books and San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Oskaloosa, Kan.
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY) - January 25, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: LIFE&STYLE; Pg. 4E
LENGTH: 1192 words
HEADLINE: MY SO-CALLED LIFE M.A. Turner
BYLINE: M. A. Turner, Freelance OK
Heartbreaking works of staggering drama (and sometimes ego)
A couple of years after I graduated from college, I went back to campus to have lunch with an old professor of mine. We gossiped about some item from the school's alumni magazine, which reminded her of something she'd read in her own alma mater's alumnae magazine: a lengthy note from a former classmate about the major changes she'd made in her life after the death of her mother.
I don't recall the specifics of the woman's transformation, although I do recall they had a sort of privileged-yuppie-awakening feel. Think: taking a leave from the art gallery to sail around the world to "find herself" in some port or another. And I remember my friend's reaction. "All of our parents will die," she said with disgust; how dare this woman use her mother's death as a plot device in her self-indulgent personal drama?
In fairness, few of us can resist the occasional temptation to imagine our lives as a grand drama, ourselves in the starring role. (It's whether we stage that drama in our heads or in the pages of our alumni magazines that determines whether others find us tolerable.) And is there a more classic tragic element than the death of a loved one - particularly a before-their-time death - and the protagonist's subsequent questioning of her self and whatever beliefs she had previously held?
For 15-year-old Alison Smith, the death of her older brother, Roy, ripped apart the foundation on which her family was firmly built: "(W)e had one talent: faith," she writes in "Name All the Animals" (Scribner, $24). "With every ounce of our imagination we believed. My brother and I grew up in the shadow of this faith, in the great floodplain of belief. Christ was more real to me than the children I met at school. ... He was my comforter, my most intimate friend."
This was a family whose parents got engaged in church, whose father sang the Latin mass in the shower and blessed his children every morning with his cherished collection of saints' relics. Then, one summer morning, Alison woke up and learned that her brother had died in a car crash.
Roy wasn't the only one to leave her: "God was gone. It felt like somebody had suddenly taken the needle off the record, and for the first time, the music I had heard my whole life, the music that was all around us, just stopped."
While her parents clung to their faith even tighter, Alison was rudderless, abandoned by her two constant companions and certain she was to blame: "Losing your faith in a world where God is all around you is precarious business. Instead I felt that God chose to exclude me from His world. ... What had I done to make God disappear and take Roy with Him?"
Then she stumbled on what felt like an answer: At the same time she was mourning her brother, she found herself falling in love - with another girl, a definite transgression in her Catholic home ("Don't you know that lesbians will burn in hell?" her suspicious mother exploded). "Name All the Animals" is a heartbreaking story, populated by fragile people reeling from loss and inadequately consoled by a faith that saw a lonely young girl's first love as an unpardonable sin.
While religion isolated Smith from her parents, for Sandra Scofield, it was the one sure way to connect with her emotionally elusive mother, she remembers in "Occasions of Sin" (W.W. Norton, $24.95). Scofield's mother was beautiful, creative - and completely out of place in 1950s small-town Texas. Then, as she began suffering from a string of health problems that would eventually kill her, she discovered Catholicism, which she took to with the usual zeal of the convert. Much of Scofield's childhood was spent tiptoeing outside a sickroom; the only time her mother showed any sign of liveliness was when she was praying, going to mass, saying a rosary, and young Sandra lived for the moments she'd be invited to join in.
Her mother's faith had a visceral, romantic quality; her description to her young daughter, on the day of her First Communion, of what it was like to receive the Host bordered on sexual. She collected priests the way another young woman might collect beaux. "I began to believe that Mother loved her priests in some forbidden way. Her attachments were too intense, too fraught with neediness. It wasn't proper," Scofield writes.
Her mother's religious faith and her failing health were inextricably linked, and Scofield, with the self-centeredness of a child, saw herself a part of the equation: "My mother needed God to keep her well, and I thought she needed me, too. This belief was the bedrock of my relationship with her. Right up until the day she died, I thought I could rally the heavenly troops and keep her going." It was a heavy burden; only years later did the adult Scofield move past her guilt and resentment and realize that "Mother's dreams were too big for the circumstances of her life."
In "American Sucker" (Little, Brown, $24.95), David Denby recounts another kind of death: the death of his marriage and, with it, of life as he knew it, an Upper West Side life of Sunday brunches and private schools and intellectual coupledom. (Denby reviews films for the New Yorker, his wife is a novelist). Determined not to lose his home along with his marriage, he set out to earn $1 million in the stock market so he could buy out his wife's share of their apartment.
At the time, the plan did not seem all that crazy: It was 2000, the stock market was zooming, and Denby wasn't the only one worshipping at the altar of NASDAQ. "At that moment, water seemed to be running uphill, plants were growing in cement, and ginger ale, shaken once or twice, poured out of the bottle as champagne," he writes. Before long, Denby was watching the tech stocks he'd invested so heavily in wither, along with years of savings.
It's not easy to muster up sympathy for Denby; he admits to investing recklessly, without doing his homework, and there's the fact that he's half-owner of a $1.5 million piece of Manhattan real estate. And while he boldly reveals some mildly scandalous personal details - he was briefly addicted to Internet porn before transferring his attention to CNBC, for instance - "American Sucker" doesn't always ring true. Even as Denby was sinking into a world of greed, populated by people like his new friend Sam Waksal - ImClone founder and Friend of Martha - part of him stood on the sidelines, taking notes in anticipation of the book he knew would come out of it.
Still, Denby poses some interesting questions about what makes us such greedy, acquisitive creatures and concludes that, in his case, his money mania - like religion for some people - was a way to stave off emptiness, loneliness, death: "All along, I couldn't see anything beyond the apartment but a blank wall, and that blankness, I now knew, was the end of my emotional life in middle age, a kind of death; and so I reached for the future, not just to get rich, but to make the most of my time and avoid the sentence of nullity hanging over me."
M.A. Turner is a writer and editor who lives in Northampton, Mass.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
- February 12, 2004 Thursday Metro Edition
SECTION: ROCHESTER LIVING; Pg. 1C
LENGTH: 451 words
HEADLINE: Area native tells of toll brother's death took
BYLINE: Lauri Githens Hatch, Staff, LGITHENS@DemocratandChronicle.com
Lauri Githens Hatch
In chapter eight of her haunting memoir, Brighton native Alison Smith not only explains her book's title, Name All the Animals, she makes it plain why abrupt, violent death forever alters those it leaves behind.
Every morning, her father, Royden Smith, would bless Alison and her brother, Roy, as they lay in their rooms.
Bless this mind; bless this throat; bless these hands; bless this voice, prayed, Smith, who once had yearned to be a priest.
Why does he do that? Alison asks Roy once.
"Because he's taking care of us," replies Roy. "He's got to name us like Adam named all the animals. To keep track of them."
But not everything that can be named can be kept.
On July 17, 1984, at 5:51 a.m., Royden Smith watched his son dash through the pouring rain and head for his job at the Penfield Country Club.
By about 5:55 a.m., Roy was dead at age 18, his van driven into a guardrail by another car on Penfield Road, where both burst into flames.
The other driver was killed. And on that morning, so was Alison's lifelong faith and sense of identity. She was 15 years old.
Writing with detail that is piercing but not maudlin, Alison chronicles the wordless grief that settled over her family, heightened by gruesome newspaper details of Roy's death.
As the summer of 1984 unfolds, Alison goes into a downward spiral, sleeping in her cellar, reading exhaustively and leaving her dinner for Roy in the fort they'd built.
In the fall when she returns to school at Our Lady of Mercy, grief washes over her at every turn. And then, gradually, so does love.
"This is about a girl coming of age realizing that her world has become complicated, heartbreaking and yet extremely exciting all at once," says Alison on the phone from her apartment in Brooklyn.
"To 'name all the animals' at that point, was impossible for me because I didn't know what was mine. And even if I could name them, I'd lost faith that I could keep them."
Despite the kindness of the nuns at school and a new love in her life, Alison at 17 becomes determined not to surpass her brother in age. When her attempt to reenact Roy's crash fails, she realizes that her life force is stronger than her broken heart.
Now a full-time writer, Smith is no longer a practicing Catholic. But she does have a renewed, different faith.
"Faith is not having St. Christopher help you find your shoe. It's more about asking for help to face what's ahead of you."
Meet the author
Who: Alison Smith, Brighton native, will read from her memoir Name All the Animals. Discussion to follow.
When: Friday from 7 to 8 p.m.
Where: Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 3349 Monroe Ave., Pittsford.
Elle Recommends . . .
In the fullness of grief reawakened, Alison Smith evokes in Name All the Animals (Scribner) the life-altering loss of her brother, to whom she was exceptionally close, in a horrendous auto accident when he was 18 years old and she 15; left struggling to reshape her young life, the author spends years trying to move past being simply "the girl whose brother died"- which she does, admirably, in this intricate, thoughtful memoir.
Biblio: Recommendations from our shelf to yours.
Every morning Alison Smith's father blessed his sleeping children-their hands, their throats, their minds. Name All the Animals (Scribner) is Smith's stunning memoir about her family's life after the death of her brother and soul mate, Roy, in a fiery accident, a loss she couldn't accept. "God was gone. It felt like somebody had suddenly taken the needle off the record," she tells us in this story of survival and sexual awakening.
OUT TRAVELER - Spring Reading
Name All the Animals
By Alison Smith, Scribner, $24
"I had never wanted to wander from the Sisters of Mercy's placid blue walls, but something in Colette's face, something in her eyes, in the curve of her elegant nose and trim mouth caused me to long for the world."
Alison, an upstate New York teenager kept under the watchful eyes of the nuns at her Catholic high school in the early 1980's, is falling in love with slightly older (and slightly femme fatale) Terry - a young woman already conversant in the ambiguous language of love spoken so fluently by sexually provocative Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and the dance-hall girls of the turn-of-the-century Paris. The wandering that Alison does in this fine memoir is not unlike the wandering that many young lesbians have done-with or without a longing for the world sparked by a certain woman's nose and mouth. Smith's prose is revealed in such a way that women (and men) will be touched by her poetic references to the endless and often perilous journeys undertaken by the human heart.
United Methodist Church Press (UMC.org)
Name All the Animals: A Memoir
Author: Alison Smith
Page Count: 319 (hardcover)
By Rev. Mark Ralls
(UMCom) -- As a child, Alison had two great certainties in her life. One was Roy. Confident and good-natured, he was the ideal older brother. And, she, "pliant, perpetually ill-informed, and stubbornly naive," made the "perfect little sister." Inseparable, they built a fort where nobody else was allowed and invented games like "ghost baseball" where no one else was necessary. They were so close that their mother even gave them a single pet name to share - "Alroy."
And, losing faith is not surrendering some bland set of beliefs. What we lose is God.
Alison was also certain of Jesus Christ. Her faith took root in a "great flood plane of belief" where an unusually devout family merged with a supportive Catholic community; a place where not believing in God was like refusing to believe in "oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." Here, Christ was more than an abstract savior. He was Alison's "most intimate friend, ... more real" to her than even the other kids she met at school.
Name All the Animals: A Memoir is Alison Smith's tender account of what it is like to lose both of these certainties in a single day. When she was fifteen, Roy was killed in an automobile accident. Seeking solace from Christ, Alison receives nothing but silence. Her description of the day Roy vanished and Jesus walked out of her life reminds us that the categories we use to explain such experiences are insufficient. We never merely suffer grief. Instead, we lose those who once made us complete. And, losing faith is not surrendering some bland set of beliefs. What we lose is God. Such deep, personal losses are literally heart breaking. In this her first book, Smith invites us to walk with her through a journey of loss, allowing us to experience the painful unraveling of faith and hope.
Yet, despite its tragic theme, Name All the Animals never dissolves into despair. It is a witness to the tenacity of love. It displays the love of a community. When Roy dies, family friends overcome their own feelings of helplessness with touching expressions of concern. One of the most powerful scenes describes how neighbors rushed to the Smith home as soon as they heard the news. "They just got in their cars and drove to us, or opened their front doors, forgetting to close them, walked into our yard, and stood there... . Mrs. Henderson wore only one earring. Mrs. Wilson clutched a telephone to her chest, the wall cord trailing behind her as she ran across the street."
To call this memoir an impressive debut by a gifted young writer would be to underestimate both the book and its author. It is, I believe, a work of art.
It is also an intimate tale of romantic love. Alongside the story of Roy's death, Smith artfully weaves a coming of age memoir about her first love. The confusing power of her attraction is multiplied by its scandalous nature in her traditional Catholic community. And, like many first loves, it both wounds and heals.
Most of all, this book is about family love. The ties that bind mother, father and sister to a lost young man are never severed. And, the three who are left doggedly choose to love even when they cannot fully understand. This wonderful memoir serves as a flesh and blood portrait of 1 Corinthians 13. It reminds us that somehow through it all, some measure of faith, hope and love abide, but, without a doubt, the greatest of these is love.
To call this memoir an impressive debut by a gifted young writer would be to underestimate both the book and its author. It is, I believe, a work of art. Like all true art, the gifts of the artist are abundantly evident but never allowed to distract from the work itself. Alison Smith tells her story in some of the most beautifully crafted prose I have ever read. Yet, in the end, it is the beauty of the story itself that shines through. When I finished this book, I didn't just feel admiration. I felt grateful, and I think you will too.
Share your comments about this book with other readers. Link to online discussion, please begin the discussion with the following question: Have there been times in your life when you've felt as if you've lost your faith? If so, how did you work through it?
The Rev. Mark Ralls is senior pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Brevard, N.C
In her first book, Smith, an alumna of the Yaddo and MacDowell writers' colonies, confidently weaves together aspects of a traditional coming-of-age memoir with a story of unimaginable loss. In lucid, controlled prose, she meticulously reconstructs her family's journey through the three years following her 18-year-old brother Roy's death in a car accident, just weeks before he was to start college, in 1984. Despite their overwhelming grief, Smith's devout Catholic parents' faith does not waver, but the 15-year-old Smith grapples with her beliefs. "I thought perhaps it was my fault that Roy had left us," she writes. "I thought I was being punished for some unknown sin." A student at a Rochester, N.Y., Catholic high school, Smith can't express her doubts, nor can she reveal her romantic feelings for one of her schoolmates, a less sheltered girl who introduces her to Colette and van Gogh. And even though Smith becomes exceedingly thin, her mother and father fail to notice she's anorexic. Name All the Animals (the title refers to Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden) includes many vivid images, although some of the language can seem too pretty and composed. The book closes with the third anniversary of Roy's death. "If I lived past the summer of my eighteenth year," Smith resolves, "I would have to face that Roy died and that I the little sister, the tagalong... would surpass him." It's a brave ending to an impressive debut. (Feb. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In this memoir, a top book for Scribner, Smith recalls grappling with her brother's death as a teenager.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
An impressive debut memoir of grief and growing up. In 1984, when the author was only 15, her 18-year-old brother Roy was burned to death in an automobile crash. Her struggle to come to terms with this loss and find her way again is recounted here with a clear eye and astonishing frankness. Smith's parents were staunch Catholics; not to believe in the existence of God, she writes, would have been like not believing in "oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." With her brother's death, Alison's faith suddenly vanished, to be replaced by study and reading. If only she could understand how space, time, light, and movement were linked in the fourth dimension, she believed, Roy would come back to her. Smith's parents, however, clung to their faith; her father still blessed her each morning with a holy relic to keep her safe. The author's observations of her parents' reaction to the loss of their only son are marked by a cool objectivity and filled with telling detail. Inexplicably, they seemed to be unaware that their grief-stricken remaining child was starving herself and wandering outside at all hours of the night. Smith's mother, it seems, was an expert at rewriting the past and pretending that unwanted events did not actually happen. At Sisters of Mercy High School, the nuns overlooked Alison's strange or out-of-line behaviors. When she fell in love with another girl and the two of them were discovered in bed together, only her companion's reputation suffered. The nuns and her classmates saw Smith as "the girl whose brother died," more to be pitied than censured. For months before the third anniversary of Roy's death, the tagalong little sister, now 18 and not wanting to surpass herbig brother, planned to reenact the accident, following him into death. Her attempt failed, her appetite for life returned, and Roy finally became a ghost figure for Alison, if not for her parents. Powerful, unsentimental, candid, and moving.
Time Out, 4-21-04
The Times (London), 4-16-04
The Observer - April 4, 2004
Sunday Telegraph (London), 4-4-04
New York Times Book Review, 3-21-04
ABA - Bookselling this Week, 3-11-04
The Miami Herald, 2-29-04
The New York Times, 2-23-04
People Magazine, 2-23-04
Newsday (New York), 2-22-04
Metro Weekly (DC), 2-19-04
Daily Hampshire Gazette (Review), 2-18-04
Daily Hampshire Gazette (Bio), 2-18-04
Entertainment Weekly, 2-13-04
The Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2-8-2004
The Journal News, 1-15-04
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 1-12-04
Elle Recommends . . .
OUT TRAVELER - Spring Reading
United Methodist Church Press
A luminous, poignant true story, Alison Smith's stunning first book, Name All the Animals, is an unparalleled account of grief and secret love: the tale of a family clinging to the memory of a lost child, and a young woman struggling to define herself in the wake of his loss.
As children, siblings Alison and Roy Smith were so close that their mother called them by one name: Alroy. But on a cool summer morning when Alison was fifteen, she woke to learn that Roy, eighteen, was dead. This is Smith's extraordinary account of the impact of that loss -- on herself, on her parents, and on a deeply religious community.
At home, Alison and her parents sleepwalk in shifts. Alison hoards food for her lost brother, hides in the backyard fort they built together, and waits for him to return. During the day, she breaks every rule at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls, where the baffled but loving nuns offer prayer, Shakespeare, and a job running the switchboard. In the end, Alison finds her own way to survive: a startling and taboo first love that helps her discover a world beyond the death of her brother.
An intimate book written in clear-eyed prose, Name All the Animals announces a brilliant new writer with a keen insight into the emotional life of the American family, the power of sibling love and loyalty, and the excruciating joy of first, forbidden love. Smith tells the story through her own fifteen-year-old eyes, with such expert pacing and narrative suspense that readers will find the book hard to put down.
Heartbreaking but hopeful, this is ultimately a book less about loss than it is about love -- about the excitement and anguish of Alison's first love, about her parents' enduring romance, about a community's passion for its faith, and about a well-loved boy who dies too young. A fiercely beautiful, redemptive book, it is sure to be a classic.
Writing a book can be a long, long road. It can feel like you’ve been wandering for years down this road and you cannot figure out where it’s leading or when, if ever, you will come to the end. It can be a lonely process and it can help to have an outside eye. At some point, you need to get a fresh perspective. You need to place your manuscript in someone else’s hands for a while and say, “You take the wheel.” That is what I offer.
First Read: I will read for impressions: what I feel the story is about, what
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Offer deep feedback on the larger tropes of your work, the major players in the story, the interplay of story and character, the narrative arc.
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I will look at shorter pieces of work and talk about the themes I see in your writing and how to capitalize on your strengths. Or we can start with a session to get you over an insecurity or a fallow period and get you writing again. We will do a combination of talking, brainstorming and writing exercises to get you working again.
What to expect: A supportive, open and responsive editor and coach. A sounding board. A guide. Tools to start you writing again or to help you start out on your first project. Or tools to bring your manuscript to completion.
I started skating at nearly the same time I took my first steps. Mother taught me how on the outdoor rink at the local park. Every weekend she took me there and we skated in circles the wobbly gait of the swamp-skater, pushing off with the serrated tip. The spring after I turned fifteen, the ice melted as it did every April, and still I showed up, like clockwork, my skates slung over my shoulder. I watched the ice dissolve back into Allen's Creek. Mother drove down and met me, popped open the passenger-side door of the family camper-van, and said, "Hop in. I've got a surprise for you." That day I skated on an indoor rink for the first time. There was something in the long mile of that white room, in the coolness of the air and the smell of the ice-like the inside of a tin cup-and all the while outside I knew the sun was tapping on the roof, warming the tiles, begging to be let in. I was hooked. I joined the rink's figure skating academy.
The girls at the Rochester Skating Academy in 1984 were a hardy bunch -- great jumpers, who raced around the rink backwards at high speeds. I was the one in the corner by the sidewall pushing my wire-rim glasses up my nose, my stockings bunched at the knees. I did not jump. My spins were slow and careful. But I did have one thing going for me. I was good at Patch.
Patch was named for the sectioning of the ice into six-by-eight-foot strips or patches. The first thing to do when you get to your assigned patch is carve two adjacent circles, using an instrument called a scribe (which looks like an overgrown compass). On that huge number eight you try to skate the perfect figure. It's harder than it looks -- keeping the cut line of the blade arced, the skate moving at a good clip, never straying from the two circles. It was my favorite part of the day: the collective silence of concentration, drilling over and over a single blade turn, the subtle weight shifts, from front to back, right to left. This measured intricacy, the repetitive devotion it required -- it was the closest you could get to praying on ice.
In late July, three months after I started my indoor skating career, I had an accident during morning Patch Hour. While practicing the 180-degree turn in the center of the eight, I slipped and fell. Sixteen pairs of eyes looked up from their patches and stared at me. I tried to stand up. My leg warmers slid down over my heels. I moved to adjust them, and then I saw it. In the center of the eight, at the fulcrum of the north and south circles, lay a spot of blood. A darkening stain ran across the crotch of my skating dress. I crossed my legs.
Moments later, in the bathroom at the Rochester Skating Rink, dark flowers of blood spread across the toilet water. I called Mother from a pay phone in the hall.
"It's your first," she whispered into the phone. She was at the architecture firm where she worked as a secretary.
"I've got blood all over me!"
"All right. I'll meet you in the bathroom, the one by the soda machine."
"Bring a bucket."
"Oh stop," she said. "It's not that bad."
I waited for Mother in the stall farthest from the door. When she entered, her low heels clip-clopped across the floor. She went straight for the last stall and opened the door. My skates were still on, the laces loosened. I had crammed half a roll of toilet paper between my legs. She slouched, one hand on her hip. "Alroy," she whispered as she shook her head. It's not my name. It's ours, my brother's and mine. A pet name she made up, combining Roy's name and mine into a single shorthand. "That bad, Alroy?" she asked.
I nodded and gazed up at her.
My mother stood in her homemade wraparound skirt with the blue flowers. She had tucked a white summer blouse into its ribboned waist. She wore her hair short, in a Dorothy Hamill cut, and in the humidity it curled out around her ears like wings. She slid her purse off her shoulder, pulled out a pack of extrathick sanitary pads, a bottle of pills, and a collapsible camping cup. She crossed over to the sink, filled the cup with water, and thrust both her hands under my nose. One held the cup, the other two pink pills.
I swallowed the pills. She ran her hand over my forehead. I pushed her away. She handed me a pad and backed up. Through the metal door I heard her sigh. She tapped her foot. I leaned back. The flusher jabbed me in the kidneys. I peeled the white adhesive strip off the back of the pad and slid my skating dress down.
Mother drove me home. After she set me up in bed with a bottle of Midol and a copy of the Psalms, she made no proud speech about my initiation into womanhood, offered no advice on the prevention of menstrual cramps or the application of sanitary pads. She cleared her throat, ran her fingers through her hair, and said, "I'll tell Daddy. You tell Roy."
And with that she left me and returned to work.
When Roy showed up outside my bedroom door later that afternoon, he was holding a portable radio. He had just come from his morning job as a groundskeeper at a local country club and was already dressed for his second summer job as a cashier at Tops Supermarket. The stiff red uniform vest, boxy and oversized, hung on his narrow frame. Wrapping a leg around the door, he leaned into the room. "Hey, little sister, who's your superman? Hey, little sister, who's the one you want?" he crooned along with Billy Idol. Then he pulled back, hit his head against the doorframe, and tumbled to the ground, moaning in mock pain.
"Roy-dee," I hollered, from under the covers.
"Little Sister," he hollered back, pulling himself up.
Billy Idol was not his music of choice. He was more a fan of the Police and the Who, but he knew this song drove me crazy. Whenever the local station played it, he rushed toward me, his arms out, singing at the top of his lungs.
I yelled over the sound of the radio. "I'm sick!"
"What?" he yelled back.
I pointed at the radio. He turned it down.
He walked into the room. "How do I look?" Under the uniform vest he wore an orange Hawaiian shirt and maroon running pants.
"Terrible. Everything clashes."
"Good!" His head bobbed up and down. "It's your turn to do the dishes."
"Will you do them?"
He glanced over at me. "What's wrong with you?"
His hands thrummed out a beat against the door. "I thought you said you were sick."
I could feel the blood rushing to my head. My face grew hot. "I have my period."
The thrumming stopped. I could hear him breathing; his lungs were congested. "Oh," he said.
He became engrossed in the pattern of his Hawaiian shirt. His hair was long; he had let it grow now that he was not in school. It ran over his ears and scrolled out around the base of his skull. The sun was shining in the window over the porch, and the evergreens' bright needles shimmered in the windless afternoon. He stepped into the room, picked up my skates, and started swinging them by the laces.
"Don't touch those," I said. I reached across the bed, grabbed them from him, and shoved them under the blankets.
He cleared his throat. "It's supposed to rain tonight," he said.
"What do you want, Alroy?"
"It's your turn to do the dishes."
"You do them."
"Loser," I said.
"Moron!" And then he lost it. He broke into a grin. Paper white teeth, three dimples -- one on either side and a little dent in his chin.
"Alroy," I said.
He disappeared behind the door again. He coughed once. The breath rattled in and out of him. He had just recovered from a nasty bout of bronchitis. One hand on the door, the other on the doorframe, he leaned back into the room and smiled. From my position on the bed I saw only half of him. A slice of brown hair, tan skin, and the hideous orange and red.
Outside a mourning dove cooed. The sun beat down on us through the back window, no trace of the coming storm. It was four in the afternoon. I looked away. I felt a slip in the air, a nearly imperceptible change in temperature. I turned to catch him, but he had already left.
I fell asleep, my hands wrapped around my skates. I slept straight through without eating supper, without going to my evening job at the Sisters of Mercy Convent. And as I slept a storm gathered over Lake Ontario, ten miles to the north. At one o'clock the sky broke open. Rain pelted the ground, rivered into the gullies along Penfield Road. It rained all night, and it was raining the next morning when Roy left for work. Friday, July 27, 1984. Father stopped him at the front door.
"What are you going to do," Father asked, "in the rain?"
Roy tossed the keys to the van from his right hand to his left and hitched up his shorts. "We'll wash the golf carts," he said.
At 5:51 a.m. Father opened the front door for him. Roy ducked into the driving storm. He was gone. It was not for another two hours, when it was too late, that I would walk into the kitchen and see. He had done the dishes after all.
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Alison Smith's writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Granta, The London Telegraph , The New York Times, The Believer, Glamour, Real Simple, Best American Erotica , and other publications.
Her book, a memoir titled Name All the Animals, was published by Scribner. Name All the Animals was named one of the top ten books of 2004 by People Magazine and was shorted-listed for the Book-Sense Book-of-the-Year Award. Alison has been awarded the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Judy Grahn Prize for Nonfiction and a Lambda Literary Award. Name All the Animals has been published in several foreign countries, including the UK, Italy, Denmark, France, Germany, Brazil and Spain. Name All the Animals is also available as an audio book—read by the author—from Simon and Schuster Audio.
Alison has taught in the MFA writing program at Goddard College and lectured at universities and high schools throughout the country. She is available for one-on-one editing and individual writing coaching. If you would like to work with Alison go to the "Contact" page to learn how to reach her.
Alison lives in Brooklyn, NY and Northampton, MA with her partner and her two dogs.
"Makes time stand still and your coffee go cold beside you."
The New York Times Book Review
"Smith writes with such assured distance that this quiet examination of grief reads more like biography than autobiography, and diplays a novelist's gift for revealing character."
"Stunning...[a] story of survival and sexual awakening."
--O, The Oprah Magazine