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  • Kateri Kramer


The Tenderland: Weaving the Lives of Family Members Together

By Kathleen Finneran

“The Tenderland” by Kathleen Finneran is a true piece of art. She masterfully and delicately weaves stories and narratives from different times together seamlessly. Her ability to do this creates a string of narrative that ties her own life and that of her family members, to the tragic life of her dear brother who took his life as a child.

There are many different threads that tie this text together, whether it be the angels that Finneran’s mother is said to “see”, or the different years and events that delineate the chapters. I found that this helped me immensely in reading the book because it spans a great amount of time, and in some situations that could be difficult to follow, however because of the way that Finneran structures the text it is much easier to understand the story including its shifts in time and space. This was something I was struggling with in writing my own essays. Because I have only ever written for myself, I was a difficult adjustment to introduce characters, give guidance to shifting events or times or locations, or create a sense of chronology. I was under the impression that this would break up the flow of a lyric essay. Although “The Tenderland” may not be considered strictly lyric, it has moments of stunning lyricism, and not once do the things I was concerned about distract from that. In fact, Finneran places these small yet vital details amidst the greater narrative so gracefully we don’t even notice them; they never seem like an intrusion.

Another aspect of writing the story of my father’s death has always been the fear of sounding overly sentimental and “weepy”. This could have easily been a road that Finneran took, during the reflection upon arguably the most difficult moment in her life, yet she never succumbs to what might be an easier way to express emotion. I think that although overly sentimental reflections can sometimes express emotion, as writers we also want to evoke emotion from our reader, and understated, critical, terribly honest reflections can do a more effective job of that than the other option. Finneran again does this beautifully, weaving them amongst events and imagery. I believe that this is where the true soul of this novel is- a young woman’s reflections upon her beloved brother, her family’s reaction and response to his death, and building a new life without him.

Early on in the second chapter, Finneran is talking with her younger sister Kelly about an upcoming wedding and discussing their father. “I thought of the way he smiled now, the painful smile he had assumed since Sean died. It was like watching a shy child smiling on command before a camera. I couldn’t look at him anymore when he smiled. I couldn’t bear the fragility of his face. There had been no occasion since Sean died that called for dancing, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my father’s dancing style- he had been smooth and unselfconscious-would be affected by grief in the same manner, turning what had been effortless into something strenuous and difficult to sustain.” (65) This heartbreaking reflection combines the setting of a scene, musing about the future, and a stark consideration of the past.

Reading this text has taught me that this is what I need to do in my own writing. In the past I wouldn’t go there either for fear of sappyness or because it was scary to delve down that far and cause that kind of emotion. But that is what writing is for, it is in this creation of reflection and emotion that we build bridges and share experiences. I need to work to make reflections go deeper, combine past and future and imagery. I have a tendency to stop writing about something as soon as it becomes uncomfortable for me, but “The Tenderland” has shown me that it is in these difficult moments that the book comes together, it is in these difficult moments where the meaning is created, it is in these difficult moments where the essay becomes a journey of understanding. Without it it is simply an explanation of that understanding without the process that was required to arrive there.

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