Guest Blogger Review Featuring Things Mean a Lot

guest_blogger_reviewthumbnail We are very excited to have Nymeth from Things Mean a Lot for our latest Guest Blogger Review. She’s known for her thoughtful, insightful reviews which cover several genres. She’s also responsible for a number of bad blogger points that awarded to reviewers who make you run out and get a copy of the book they’ve just reviewed.

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ironweed Ironweed by William Kennedy
My guilt is all I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing.

Set in Albany during the Great Depression, Ironweed is the story of Francis Phelan, a former baseball player who abandons his family after fatally dropping his infant son. After the accident, Francis becomes a wandering homeless alcoholic. After twenty-two years away, he returns to Albany, where he is forced to confront his past at last.

The novel takes place on Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and it begins at a cemetery, with Francis visiting the grave of his son Gerald for the first time. Being the kind of reader that I am, I have to highlight Ironweed’s elements of speculative fiction: Francis has conversations with the ghosts of three people whose deaths he caused, and for this reason the book has occasionally been labelled magic realism. You could of course say that the ghosts are a product of Francis’ imagination, or an embodiment of his guilt, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But then again, I often see ghosts in more symbolic or introspective terms even in books that are labelled speculative fiction. There are things that are better expressed if you leave the limits of realism behind.

As you can probably guess from the premise, Ironweed is a shattering and haunting book. But it’s not actually as depressing as you might expect a book about a homeless man overwhelmed by guilt to be. Don’t get me wrong – though there are some funny moments, it’s by no means a cheerful read. But while there’s sorrow and regret and ugliness and death, there’s also a lot of tenderness, and in the end, hope.

The novel is named after the flower Ironweed. Before the story begins, we are told that “tall Ironweed is a member of the Sunflower Family (Astereceae). It has a tall erect stem and bears deep purple-blue flower heads in loose terminal clusters (…) The name refers to the toughness of the stem.”

I’m sure this choice of title can be interpreted in several different ways, but to me it speaks of resilience, of survival against all odds. Francis survives the very worst, but the hardest thing he had to handle is perhaps the fact that he has survived in itself. In the same way, his biggest regret may be the fact that regret and guilt have consumed his whole life. He did not allow himself to move on, to start again, to live what was left of his life. But carrying on is what life does, whether one allows it to or not.

I’m sure there’s a lot in Ironweed that I missed due to my limited knowledge of American history. I’m actually very much drawn to books set in America during the Great Depression, and I’ve been meaning to pick up some more fiction as well as non-fiction about this period. (Does anyone have any suggestions?) All this to say that I expect Ironweed to be an even more rewarding read for more knowledgeable readers, as well as for myself when I return to it someday in the future.

Another thing I found interesting was the fact that there were cameos by characters from William Kennedy’s other novels. His novel Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, which I haven’t read yet, is about the surviving son Francis left behind. And Marcus Groaman, a lawyer to whom Francis owes some money, is the narrator of Legs (which I recommend perhaps even above Ironweed). I’m not sure why, but I love it when authors bring the universe of their novels together like that.

The last few lines of Ironweed are incredibly moving, but I’ll refrain from sharing them because you really do need to read them in context to feel their full impact. So instead I’ll just urge you to read the book and discover them for yourself.

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23 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Review Featuring Things Mean a Lot

  1. I like the idea of speaking to ghosts of people whose deaths he caused. That’s a really interesting idea, not one I would have associated with this book from either the cover or title.

  2. Did you notice that Francis’s journey somewhat parallels Dante’s movement through the various levels of purgatory? I read this book along with my son when it was assigned in his high school English class and thoroughly enjoyed it. Picking up the imagery from Purgatorio really enhanced my enjoyment of it.

  3. Great review! I tend to steer clear of Great Depression books (they make me, you know, depressed), so I don’t have any really good recommendations. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is beautifully written, but it does teeter on the edge of bathos sometimes. And when I was a kid, I really liked this book by Zilpha Keatley Snider called “The Velvet Room”. It was about a little girl called Robin whose father was a migrant worker during the Depression. She finds this room inside an abandoned old mansion, and it becomes a haven for her. I really enjoyed Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, too.

  4. As always, a great review from Nymeth!! This sounds like a fascinating book. I’m not a big fan of Depression era fiction, but this one has peaked my interest!

  5. Wow! this sounds like a book I would really enjoy. I never knew it existed until now, but I’m sure to change that and add this one to my list of books to read. Thanks Nymeth for a wonderful review!!

  6. Another wonderful review, Nymeth! I think I might enjoy this one a great deal. To me, I’m not sure it matters if the ghosts were “real” or not…I often have a hard time making that kind of separation. But I think I would very much enjoy that aspect of this book.
    I’m afraid I can’t help much when it comes to Depression-era books, as I’ve read very few. I did really enjoy Esperanza Rising, which is a middle grades sort of book, and gives a very unique perspective. And The Worst Hard Time (non-fiction) was excellent, but dealt with the Dust Bowl (certainly one part of the Depression but not an overall look).
    Thanks again for another fabulous review!

  7. Lu: Ah, the tbr pile….it’s an ever-growing monster 😛

    Amanda: I actually wouldn’t have expected it either!

    Bermudaonion: That living link to history is something that always impresses me, and it’s why I love hearing older people telling stories. For example, my grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, used to tell us about WW1. It’s amazing to feel that connection to someone who actually lived through events we only read about.

    Wordlily: I don’t know why, but that time period really fascinates me.

    Loren Eaton: I’ll have to check out Leif Enger!

    Melissa: Thank you!

    Carolyn: I didn’t, but I haven’t read The Divine Comedy yet. That definitely adds another layer to it, and it’s another reason to revisit this book in the future.

    Jenny: Thanks for the recommendations! I’d actually forgotten that Their Eyes Were Watching God was set during this period. I have it on my mental list for this year.

    Darla, thank you so much for the link!

    Teddy: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Terri B: Do! What’s one more? 😛

    Stephanie, thank you so much 🙂

    Rhinoa: It’s very cool, isn’t it?

    Staci: I hope you do enjoy it 🙂

    Debi: It doesn’t matter to me either. I’m willing to accept anything in my fiction as long as the book has internal consistency. But some people make a big deal about the ghosts in this book, because this is Respectable Fiction, after all, and therefore it cannot deviate from realism. You know how that goes 😛 You said you were afraid you couldn’t help, but then you went ahead and helped 😛 Thanks for the recommendations!

  8. I know I’ve seen this book on the shelves before but had never really been tempted to pick it up. I had no idea what it was about but it sounds like a great read. Thank you for such a wonderful review!

  9. This is definitely going on my list! I took a course on the Great Depression in college and I still love to read books set in this time period. I recommend “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse. “Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America” was the book we read throughout the course and is a great way to get all of the facts about that decade. I also read parts of “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd which was set in the 30s (the movie “A Christmas Story” is based off the book although the movie took place in the 40s, I think).

  10. I found you while looking for reviews of Breathing Lessons. I agreed with your take on that book, so I’m putting Ironweed on my list, too. For Depression era books, John Steinbeck is excellent. Especially Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice & Men. Thanks for your thoughtful reviews!

  11. I don’t think of this as a Great Depression novel. It struck me when I first read it in the 80’s that it had to be set in that time merely to establish sympathy for Francis – at any other time, he would be a tough character to understand.

    He was decent but so lost – in later decades he would just be flawed.

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