Not to disparage the thrill of a good sparkly vampire novel, because I’ve read quite a few, but the quality of restraint in fiction is becoming increasingly undervalued. It is pleasant to stumble across books that reward a different kind of attention, that make up for in texture what they lack in color. This kind of restraint is the defining quality of Lee Sandlin’s contemplative memoir and the family it describes. The Distancers is not a “page-turner” and certainly could not be described as “gripping.” The book is an embodiment of the reticence Sandlin describes in his ancestors: instead of grabbing the reader and pulling him in, The Distancers simply meets the reader at the turn of the page and invites him to see for himself.
Sandlin begins his memoir in the mid-nineteenth century, when his German ancestors, the Sehnerts, first came to Illinois. But their story and that of their children are both mainly lead-ups to the lives of his great aunts and uncles, with whom Sandlin spent summers when he was a child: sisters Helen and Hilda, their brother Eugene, and Hilda’s husband, Marty. There’s no plot per se, only a series of stories gleaned from neighbors and friends. Major American events such as World War II and the Great Depression appear only as backdrops in the characters’ lives. Sandlin’s great-great-great grandfather Peter was so remote in location and in personality as to have, in effect, missed the Civil War altogether. He was too old to enlist; his sons were too young. Meanwhile, he had a farm to run.
As a result of his family’s isolation, the best of Sandlin’s stories demonstrate either the smallness of the world most people knew, or the way that silence and reticence provided a kind of space for deviation from expectations and traditions. Sandlin’s great-great uncle took pleasure in finding distant transmissions on his radio, once receiving a broadcast all the way from Havana. Vicariously experiencing the confines of his life, one imagines the delight of actually hearing, and not just believing, that other people are also listening to the radio thousands of miles away. Uncle Eugene, after coming home from World War II, is free to indulge his desire for silence and solitude in a home where no one will ever ask him to relive the pain he experienced by the telling of it.
Even as a boy, Sandlin became aware of how little he really knew about these people he loved, whose primary lesson to him was that “there was never a good time to talk about yourself. Your problems are nobody’s business. Your triumphs are nothing special. Never boast, never complain, never reveal, never admit, never take pride, never expect a compliment, never look for sympathy or commiseration or approval”. This attitude accounts for much of the texture of the book: learning that Sandlin’s great aunt Helen resented having to quit high school feels like a soul-baring revelation when it’s about a person who took umbrage at being asked any personal question. And this is not even among the book’s more personal disclosures. Such is the irony of a memoir written about a family of private people.
Curiously, while laying bare the events of his family’s life, Sandlin himself remains hidden from view. He subtly bends one’s expectations of the genre, first by writing a “memoir” about events he himself does not personally remember, and second, unlike most modern memoirists, Sandlin does not use the form to present an in-depth portrait of his own personality. His ancestors inhabit the book as independent entities, and not merely characters in Sandlin’s life. In this way, he demands from the reader an empathy that is almost as rare as appreciation of restraint. Few people will see themselves mirrored in the personalities of Sandlin’s family or in the events of their lives.
What one might take away is the recognition of how large simple people can loom in our memories if they reach us while we are still young. A flower garden at Sandlin’s aunts’ house becomes a maze for him as a child. A family dinner becomes a study in manners and respect. Despite their private natures, what Sandlin remembers most about his aunts and uncles is their laughter: “It was a kind of laughter that radiated well-being, acceptance, faith. Just being around it made you exhilarated…” There is nothing in The Distancers to overwhelm or “exhilarate” the reader. But a certain kind of reader will take pleasure in the simplicity of Sandlin’s clear expression of love for his ancestors and his desire to preserve their memory with unembellished nostalgia.