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In her memoir The Beauty of What Remains, Susan Johnson Hadler finds friends in strangers—members of her late father’s World War II battalion and his childhood friends and long-lost relatives—whose stories help her to better understand her own life. As a psychologist, Hadler is expert at drawing connections, providing details, and explaining how she feels. But at times she’s too close to the story; it feels more like self-therapy than a book written for an audience. She spells out every step of her journey and her every thought as if it were her journal. The reader understands it is important for Hadler to learn about her family’s past but isn’t completely convinced that they should care too.
When Hadler is only a few months old, her father is blown apart by a mine in Germany, just as the war comes to a close. Hadler’s mother remarries and gives birth to five more children, firmly closing the door to her first marriage behind her. Her silence is her armor, but it creates a deep hole in her first daughter. Hadler carries a sense that she does not fully belong in her family for 50 years, until Veterans Day of 1992, when she witnesses people openly mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; their display of grief after her decades of silence feels like a “caress,” and she vows to end the silence and discover her father. Hadler’s search takes her from her home in D.C. to France and Germany, where her father lived the last months of his life, and to a little town in Wisconsin, where he grew up and she was born.
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The reader does not fully comprehend why Hadler longs to know people who knew her father and mother in the past but are complete strangers to her—a question that the author poses herself but never answers satisfactorily. This may be because readers don’t learn enough about Hadler in the years leading up to her journey—how the hole created by her mother’s silence affected her growth. The glimpses we do get are strong, but scarce: “During our weekly spelling test, when my third grade teacher called out the word ‘mine,’ I froze and then wrote the word in tiny letters. It was a word that spelled death.”
This is not Hadler’s first book, but her style reveals that writing has not been her sole pursuit. Her prose is often overly sentimental and full of clichés. The dialogue of the book feels forced at times and makes her characters, including herself, feel robotic and rehearsed. She leans too much on letters or historical documents and provides unnecessary details about events, which alienate the reader and bog down the flow of the narrative.
But Hadler does have skill as a writer. Her work is strongest when she recalls a specific memory or scene from her travels: “Sea gulls floated and dropped and swooped… The gull rose and cleared the rim of chalk cliffs, cliffs that curved around the edge of the sea and thinned like a line of soldiers marching into the horizon.” And Hadler has done her homework, as the book’s history of World War II and state mental hospitals before deinstitutionalization in the 1970s is rich and vivid. She effectively revives and transports the reader to the past, such as the camp where her father lived in France: “It was a place where soldiers, prisoners, women, and men were thrown together at the edge of war, a temporary place, buildings were temporary, relationships were temporary, lives were temporary.”
By the end of the book, as the title reveals, Hadler has found beauty in what remains of her father and her other lost relatives. Her story is inspirational for anyone who has ever been met with silence when they asked about their family’s past. The reader is left with a promise that, while disrupting that quiet may be initially, and inevitably, painful, perseverance and being present to what surrounds us—even that which is invisible—will fill any holes we possess with a transformational sense of belonging.
Hadler visits the Potter’s House on Oct. 17