There is a certain kind of book that is known in the publishing world as "inspirational." It succeeds, often in spite of rather workmanlike prose, for one good reason: Most human beings, despite the tattered condition of our own lives and aspirations, are deeply consoled by reading about someone else who has not, under pressure, dropped the flag.
"Patchwork Clan" is that kind of a book. After finishing it one doesn't know whom to congratulate first -- Ann and John Sweeney, for presiding over a household of 17 children (nine of whom are adopted) or author Doris Lund, for taking so much rich, chronologically complex material and organizing it into a book that reads so well.
Lund begins the saga at a far distance -- on the outskirts of war-torn Saigon in 1975, when three Vietnamese children are tossed onto the ocean, in a jam-packed boat, by their desperate parents, who were forced to stay behind. The boat finally reaches Hong Kong where Chuong, 9, Dat, 3, and Hope, an infant, languish in a refugee camp for nearly five months. By the time they reach the Sweeneys, Chuong is disturbed (and remains so for most of the book), Hope is a passive rag doll, and only Dat is relatively unimpaired.
The first time Chuong was driven up to their large comfortable frame house in a Connecticut village outside New York, he thought the Sweeneys must be rich. And to be truthful, the reader is never sure that they are not. There is nothing ostentatious about the Sweeneys, who operate like an international "Brady Bunch" without a housekeeper, and John Sweeney is a symphony conductor, which, last time anybody looked, does not make a man rich. Then, too, Ann Sweeney gives 45 private piano lessons a week, on top of keeping the peanut-butter sandwiches rolling across the kitchen table, and she is an avid yard-sale shopper as well. There is, however, an indoor swimming pool. The children wear new, not hand-me-down, clothes. And when a new bicycle is crucial for somebody's development, a new bicycle is purchased. It doesn't quite add up.
But so what! Let them be as rich or poor as they are. The largest trust fund in Brown Brothers Harriman does not account for the deep commitment and dedication that enables Ann (herself an only child) to successfully preside over such a mixed nursery of transplants.
There are Sweeneys in all colors, sizes and temperaments. Some had been battered by hot belt buckles as babies, others were disturbed, like Chuong, from the circumstances of their earthly beginnings. One girl, Maria, is blind. Adjustments are made; she will be all right. Somehow, the Sweeney family works, although Ann Sweeney is no saintly earth mother. Or so Lund maintains.
We believe her, but the evidence in the book does not stick in my mind. Ann is caught once muttering "Jesus Christ" out of earshot of her children. She screams and gets angry, although she does not dislodge any china from the shelves when she erupts. And I can't think of a child who would not thrive under the warm spirit of a mother who drags her blanket on a cold night to sleep on the floor beside the bed of a feverish child.
As for John Sweeney, he is the gentle, strong, back-up in Ann's life. Each makes the other's life possible and, unlike many marriages that founder when the partners run out of reasons to worship each other, the Sweeneys are joined by a reason that transcends themselves, being of use to somebody beyond themselves.
There are plenty of problems in the Sweeney family. The book is a full, fast-moving tale of adoption red tape, state requirements for fire escapes, sickness, character disorders in new arrivals, and all the insecurities and terrors of children salvaged from the outer reefs of society. But the Sweeneys hold high the flag.
After putting "Patchwork Clan" down and thinking about it for a while, I had a slight taste of cotton candy in my mouth, an "Isn't that nice -- for them" feeling that led me to conclude that the Sweeneys are more to look at than to follow. Why? Because the Sweeneys are presented as being so complete within themselves that the author left me no tracks to follow that did not ultimately go in circles. Around the Sweeneys, but not inside.