When my daughter got married, I made a recipe book as a gift. In scrapbook fashion, I assembled recipes and anecdotes that told the story of our family in terms of special meals, snacks, holidays, and celebrations. I had a blast making it, recalling the times we enjoyed Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole with company, or made ice cream cakes for birthdays, caramel corn and pumpkin bars in the fall, and Dutch oliebollen at New Year’s. Memories also included food object lessons and humorous cooking disasters.
Ah, the stories that bind us. By making this book, I wanted my daughter to take these recipes with their memories into her marriage as she established a new home and started creating new family memories.
Over the past two years, I interviewed my mother-in-law Joyce and my father about their respective life histories. Though I knew quite a bit already, I definitely learned things and discovered new stories. I typed them all up and made copies for each of their children and grandchildren.
I wanted the grandkids to have a tangible form of their grandparents’ experiences, stories that reach from one generation to the next. Stories that connect them to their heritage and had an impact on who they are today.
It’s the stories that carry us, those moments of interaction, more than lists of accomplishments.
Scrapbooking has been a hobby of mine as I documented each of my kids’ childhoods. Each picture suggests a story, often a sweet memory. It’s why we make albums, why we gravitate to them–and also why we avoid them when certain memories are tainted with lingering heartaches.
In Stories That Bind Us, Susie Finkbeiner takes us on a storytelling journey that creates a bond between two unlikely people–a newly-widowed white woman and her five-year-old black nephew. Additionally, Betty Sweet, the protagonist, uses the power of story to reconnect with her past and an estranged sister.
If you missed my previous reviews about Susie Finkbeiner’s work, go here:
Back Cover Blurb
Betty Sweet never expected to be a widow at 40. With so much life still in front of her, she tries to figure out what’s next. She couldn’t have imagined what God had in mind. When her estranged sister is committed to a sanitarium, Betty finds herself taking on the care of a 5-year-old nephew she never knew she had.
In 1960s LaFontaine, Michigan, they make an odd pair. Betty with her pink button nose and bouffant hair. Hugo with his light brown skin and large brown eyes. But more powerful than what makes them different is what they share: the heartache of an empty space in their lives. Slowly, they will learn to trust one another as they discover common ground and healing through the magic of storytelling.
Award-winning author Susie Finkbeiner offers fans a novel that invites us to rediscover the power of story to open the doors of our hearts.
“Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.” — Victor Hugo
Thus begins the story of Betty Sweet in LaFontaine, Michigan. And another bird metaphor from author Susie Finkbeiner that includes a goldfinch singing in the rain and a robin singing even as the sun goes down.
It’s 1963. The Vietnam War rages. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers is killed, four young black girls die in a church bombing in Birmingham, and President Kennedy is assassinated. During that tumultuous time, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. Seems his dream has a long way to go before finding reality.
Forty-year-old Betty carries her own heartache of loneliness and unexpected widowhood. She’d just lost her husband to a heart attack and finds irony in the news reporter stating that Medgar Evers’ wife and three children were “unharmed.”
Nobody is untouched by a tragedy. Especially in one’s own family.
Betty’s burden is doubled when her estranged sister Clara shows up on her doorstep–with a five-year-old son Betty never knew about. Hugo, her nephew. And he’s black.
Betty takes them in. When Clara’s depression overwhelms her and keeps her pinned to the bed all day long, then in the sanitarium for months, Betty finds herself caring for Hugo.
She reaches across the breach between them by telling Hugo made-up stories and taking him to places that inspired them: a yellow castle and a green-tiled ceiling surrounded by fish. Yes–real places in Michigan.
Betty’s husband’s family owns the local bakery. Her in-laws–Pop, Albert, Marvel, and Stan–take Hugo under their wing, too, along with cousins Nick and Dick. Their activities around town sometimes draw odd looks from folks.
Betty is also reconciling with her own looks–in the mirror. On her forty-first birthday, she states, “In a world of Jackie Kennedys, I was on my way to becoming an Aunt Bee.” Little knowing that Jackie was headed toward widowhood, too. All too early, like Betty.
Almost every chapter starts with a story about Betty’s childhood as she recalls episodes with her hard-boiled father, depressed mother, and headstrong younger sister Clara. Clara’s reappearance into Betty’s life evokes memories of their difficult childhood with a mother who went to a mental institution and never returned.
Thus, Betty avoids paging through her childhood photo album.
But there are fond memories, too, and Betty grasps them: Clara fighting the rooster, Mother’s storytelling about the bird who was afraid of the dark, and Mother taking Betty to see Sheba the elephant at Belle Isle. She has to find ways to harness the hope in stories of comfort and strength to reach across the divide to Clara.
Clara’s situation is heartbreaking. Stuck in a downward spiral of depression, she spends months in the state mental hospital, with periodic visits from Betty. Betty is alarmed each time, watching the effects of depression as well as its treatment during an era when mental illness was handled much differently. And had even more stigma.
Woven throughout the narrative are 1960s news, TV, music, and styles–including Ward Cleaver and Eddie Haskell (Leave It To Beaver); Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Doris Day; Peter, Paul and Mary; and pedal pushers. At the drive-in movie, the Sweet family learns about Kennedy’s visit to Germany via the news reel before watching Jason and The Argonauts. Local news references a circus elephant loose from Lansing’s zoo.
Betty’s outings and memories in Michigan encompass author James Curwood’s residence in Owosso, the town of Bliss, Lake Lansing, Greenfield Village, and Belle Isle’s zoo and aquarium in Detroit. I always check the internet after reading about landmarks–to discern between real and fictional settings. Being from Michigan, I was familiar with most of the places mentioned, but I’d never heard about the children who’d donated lunch and milk money to raise funds for an elephant for the Belle Isle Zoo in the 1920s. Sheba the Asian elephant made her home there from 1923 to the end of her life in 1959.
A caveat: If you’re a reader looking for vivid action on every page, don’t give up on this one. It’s worth your while. Betty is a sympathetic narrator, and each character is real, distinct, and endearing, but the momentum really builds when Clara and Hugo show up.
Join me for an interview with author Susie Finkbeiner.
This is your second book set in the 1960s, another tumultuous year–1963 instead of 1967. Instead of having a family member in the Vietnam War, as with Annie, Betty is confronted with her husband’s death at home, and the horrors of the country’s racism, all the more relevant because of her nephew Hugo being black. Did you choose 1963 because of the current events at the time? Also, explain more about how this story came to be.
Susie: I got the idea for Stories That Bind Us while walking through the aquarium at Belle Isle in Detroit. It was a rare moment of sudden inspiration that writers dream of. The idea was sparked by the jade green ceiling tiles. (If you don’t see the tiles, click on slide show arrow.)
Sometimes it takes the smallest, most random thing to get the creative juices flowing.
But as soon as I started jotting the idea down to send to my editor, I knew it had to be set in 1963. That year seemed to be a pivotal one for the United States. It was a year when eyes were starting to open to racial injustice and I wanted to capture that awakening in Betty.
You mention several places in Michigan that Betty visits with her family as a child, with her husband Norm, or with her nephew Hugo. Though your childhood was later than the ’60s, did you visit these places yourself as a child? Or later as an adult? What memories do you have of them?
Susie: Nearly all of my childhood vacations were spent in Michigan. There’s plenty to do and see here and I’m grateful that my parents made sure we experienced what my home state has to offer! We visited each location in the story. But my favorite memory is of taking my own kids to Belle Isle to explore. It’s not nearly the place it was, but I have hopes of its revitalization.
Maybe I’ll have to take my grandchildren there in the future.
The concept of story is vital to Betty’s experiences. Each story is how she finds meaning, purpose, connection, or solace, enabling her to reach out to Clara and Hugo. Do you have a particular childhood story (or two or three) that has special meaning for you?
Susie: All the significance that Betty finds in story is precisely the significance that I find in it. I believe this is because I was born into a family of storytellers and readers. We always had shelves full of books and made lots of trips to the library. I’m happy to say that the tradition lives on with my kids.
We’re story-loving people around here.
At some point in my childhood my mom got a set of the Oz books. It’s a series of fourteen books, each of them as magical as the one before it. My mom read them out loud to us. All fourteen! And she gave a different voice to each of the characters, making it a very fun experience. That series instilled in me an understanding of the importance of loyalty in friendship.
Later on I got my hands on The Chronicles of Narnia. Another series of wonder-filled stories! These books made hope feel accessible and reinforced the necessity of faith.
Those are two wonderful series! How fun that you got to hear all 14 Oz books read in different voices! Some people don’t even know that L. Frank Baum wrote more than one. Besides writing novels, in what other ways do you use stories to connect to others?
Susie: For years I taught Bible at an after-school program and then served as a children’s minister at a church. I found through those jobs that people learn so well through story. Fortunately, the Bible offers lots of great material that I so enjoyed sharing.
Now I speak to an older crowd and love sharing a talk titled “Your Story Matters”, encouraging the listeners that the unique story of their lives communicates that God sees them, knows them, and loves them.
Mental illness was approached in a completely different way in the 1960s compared to nowadays. Betty’s sister Clara faces mental health challenges similar to their mother’s. Do you have a connection to anyone who struggles with mental illness? Can you share about that?
Susie: I think we’d be hard pressed these days to find someone who doesn’t know anyone who struggles with their mental health. I’ve been heartened over the past few years by the people who have been open about their trials, diminishing the stigma that has had a stronghold over the dialogue for hundreds of years.
I’ve known and loved many people who live with mental illness. Some of them more profoundly impacted than others. What I really wanted to communicate to them through this story is that they are loved and worthy to be loved. Too often that isn’t the message they receive from the world and from the Church.
Yet another bird metaphor! Your affinity for birds definitely comes through in all three of the novels I’ve read by you, though each metaphor is different. Do birds play a metaphorical role in all your novels? Where does your love for birds come from?
Susie: Birds make for a good metaphor! And you caught me. I love working them into my novels. If memory serves, all eight novels have mention of birds in some way or another. Although the earlier books might not make as much use of them as the latter three.
I grew up spending lots of time outside. I was a bit of a tomboy and loved running through the neighborhood or hiking through a nature preserve near my house. I was the kind of kid who noticed things (which seems to be common among writers). Birds were just one of those things that caught my attention. I remember my dad teaching me how to identify different things in nature — plants and trees and footprints. But what always excited me was learning to identify a bird by her song.
I guess I’ve always loved my fine feathered friends.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Stories That Bind Us, you might enjoy my novel Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Also set in Michigan, it alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s. Mr. Baum’s storytelling through The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other books is an example of how certain timeless stories reach across barriers and impact lives. Go here to learn more. Watch the book trailer here.
Also set in the 1960s, my novel, All That Is Hidden, is set in southern Appalachia (1968). The stories and wisdom of generations past come to bear on the troubles of 1968 in a small rural town. Learn more on my website about my recently relaunched novel. Watch the trailer here.
Susie Finkbeiner serves on the Fiction Readers Summit planning committee, volunteers her time at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and speaks at retreats and women’s events across the country. Susie and her husband have three children and live in West Michigan. Check out her other books on her website. Find her at Facebook, Instagram, and BookBub.
Join me next time as we explore the work of author Pepper Basham.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read Stories That Bind Us ? Share your thoughts. Or . . . What family story has meant the most to you?