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They Made Lemonade

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, December 16, 2005

WHY DO I LOVE THESE PEOPLE?

Honest And Amazing Stories of Real Families

By Po Bronson

Random House. 381 pp. $24.95

If you're like me, by this time in the holiday season you're fairly ravaged, not just by the physical or financial stress but also by the emotional weirdness of it all. Joy to the world and all that, but what about joy's dour twin, the voice that asks silently and persistently, what's the point? All of our divorces, failed relationships, lost opportunities, ruined chances, estranged parents and disdainful kids come back to haunt us. As the year ends and the days become shorter and darker, we tend to doubt our own lives and how we have chosen to live them. (Probably that's why all the desperate cheer is floating around, to drown out that sad and dour voice.)

Here's a decent, heartening, kind and healing book to read -- and give -- if you feel that way. Po Bronson has spent his recent years traveling through the United States looking for people who found themselves in despair, but then by different combinations of hard work, goodwill, determination and stamina, changed their circumstances for the better.

Not everyone could write this kind of book. It might easily sound mawkish, sappy, "inspirational," some kind of long version of the Ladies Home Journal's column "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" (And, of course, it always could.) Here's the thing about Po Bronson. I've never met the man, but every time his name comes up, everyone who knows him feels compelled to bear witness to his extraordinary goodness. Not preacherly goodness but the real thing. He's the kind of person, they say, who's the first to turn up when you have to move on short notice or can't make it to school to pick up your kid. He has never made a publicist cry.

He's also not afraid to tackle the big questions: His previous bestselling book, "What Should I Do With My Life?" contained stories of real people who sought and sometimes found meaning in their existence. "Why Do I Love These People?" tells more tales of those who -- again, how do I say it? -- found themselves in a pickle but somehow reconfigured their circumstances so that their lives made more internal sense.

The first few stories here are absolutely marvelous. In "The Promise," a woman on an outing with her extended family floats on an inner tube on a peaceful-seeming river. (Just like life, before things go blooie.) The tubes are roped up to each other, she appears to be safe-as-houses, but a rope snaps. She's caught in rapids and almost drowns. Underwater, she reasons with God, making the case that she has children she must live to attend to. When the river lets her go and washes her up on shore, her husband blows the whole thing off. "You were only in there a few minutes. . . . You're making a big deal out of nothing!" (Of course, they weren't his few minutes.) Within the year she divorces her husband, not because he is a "bad" man but because he can't or won't listen to her. Does she go on to become the first woman president of the United States? No. She marries another guy who suits her better. She manages to become friends with her father, who always ignored her. She raises a couple of great kids. She's alive and grateful. She's in love with the world. Can she -- or we -- in good conscience ask for anything more?

We're always living with two myths about the American family. The first is the one we get from television -- the Cleavers and the Cosbys and all those other moms and dads and kids who never need a haircut or pitch a fit. The other myth, equally potent, is the one about the "bad" family. My paternal grandmother, before I was born, blew her head off with a shotgun, but not before she took the time to write a scathing note blaming all her relatives for her bad fortune. My father, only 14, discovered her body. Stories like that promote hopelessness, which in turn promote paralysis and despair, which Bronson is dead set against.

In "The Trial," a Mexican American factory girl grows up in El Paso, unwanted and unloved. At 19, she marries a lout who tries to beat her up. But he has picked the wrong sparring partner. She puts up her fists and shouts, "Come on, death match!" She marries again and has a baby named Vince, who as a toddler falls off chairs and chews fabric. (And Rosa, according to family lore, was never any good with kids.) When Vince gets to school age, the "special ed" gestapo kicks in, and he's diagnosed with ADHD, etc. For more than a dozen years Rosa fights the school system to obtain full rights for her child -- and only those who have gone through this can know what it means. But the bureaucrats have picked the wrong sparring partner! In the fullness of time, Vince graduates summa cum laude from Arizona State. "Rosa wishes she'd had a chance at more in her life," Bronson writes. But she took the iffy cards she was dealt and she played a winning hand. "Life gave her this chance, and she ran with it."

In "The Palace," Brian is the youngest of six African American siblings growing up with a single mother on the central California coast. He knows he's "different" somehow. His mother, on welfare and disability, is the best mom she can be, but as his brothers grow up, they fall in with bad companions and get into serious trouble. It turns out Brian's father was a Nigerian student at UC Davis, and Brian, from the midst of chaos, is inspired to go to college. He works hard, stays out of trouble, gets married. Then one day he gets a phone call. His father in Nigeria is alive; the family is large, extended and prominent. His father is considered "a great man" in his village, and Brian gets to visit him. But what does this identity shift mean for Brian's own precarious, precious life?

All these stories are about families, relationships, how we can learn to live together -- not like the Cleavers, but not like my desperately lonely and despairing grandmother and her grieving family either. There are a couple of adulterers in this collection of stories who I wouldn't want in my living room, but that shows my lack of virtue, not theirs. Bronson is adamant: As it says in the book of Job, "Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." We all mess up, but if we apply ourselves and work and keep on being brave, we can make better lives for ourselves. A consoling thing to remember as we gather this time of year with those fascinating entities -- our lovers, our friends, our enemies, our family.

Bronson is no Pollyanna; he tells stories about himself that reveal his own compulsion to "succeed," to be "better," but he reminds himself and us repeatedly that those aren't the things that count. Love and decency and self-control count. And the integrity of his prose style as well as the incredible sweetness of those he writes about give him 24-karat credibility.

Sunday in Book World

Shakespeare's dark times.

Marge Piercy's "Sex Wars."

The origins of Islamic terrorism.

How one black working mother stays sane.

Beautiful gift books for the holidays.

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