"The Mason House" is a memoir that flows like a novel, told by a girl who reminds this reviewer of Francie Nolan, the narrator of Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Theresa's story begins with the death of her paternal grandmother, then wraps back to an earlier loss, that of the girl's father at a young age and her mother's profound grief.
After Gramma's death, that compounded sorrow leads Theresa's mother to a course of destructive actions that strain the family, who move from their Ojibwe homeland cross-country in search of peace and stability.
Theresa is a girl of observation and thought, and it is through her that the story of the house and family is told. A tangible and spiritual refuge, Gramma's house was the center for her extended family, her presence the glue that held relatives together during hard times in an economically depressed region. Her passing created an emptiness that strained the family, particularly Theresa's mother, whose interactions with her daughters were already blunted by the sorrow of widowhood and the loss of her young sons.
Against the backdrop of family and community histories as well as movement from the Keweenaw area in the Upper Peninsula across the country, we view through Theresa's storytelling a series of scenes over several years. The family's realization that a return to the homeland could bring hope and renewal is the beginning of a slow healing that reveals the strengths of the family: Although obscured and hidden during the many tangents of grief and loss, those have been present the entire time.
The bonds of love and blood, though strained and stressed, have not broken; in returning home the family is redeemed, enfolded into the community and the comforts and strengths of Ojibwe tribal traditions. Theresa's mother, cared for by her sisters who have aged and matured, becomes part of the circle of women and is honored as an Elder, her struggles understood and accepted.
Written in prose that is both stark and lyrical as well as intrinsically intertwined with the landscape of the homeland, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, "The Mason House" is an engaging and heartening read.
Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her essay collection, "Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year," received the 2018 Minnesota Book Award for Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.
The Mason House
By: T. Marie Bertineau.
Publisher: Lanternfish Press, 299 pages, $18.