Sarah Beth Childers, Prodigals

Sarah Beth Childers, Prodigals

Congratulations to SR Contributor Sarah Beth Childers on her forthcoming book, Prodigals: A Sister’s Memoir of Appalachia and Loss

Prodigals is a series of lyric essays of loss and resistance told in the voice of an Appalachian storyteller.

The book examines how Childers’ brother’s story was both universal and uniquely Appalachian. While the familiar story of the prodigal son carries all its assumed baggage, the Appalachian setting of Prodigals brings its own influences. Childers foregrounds the Appalachian landscape in her narrative, depicting its hardwood forests, winding roads, mining-stained creeks and rivers, hill-clinging goats and cows, neighborhoods and trailer parks tucked between mountains. The Childers family’s fervent religious faith and resistance to medical intervention seems normal in this environment, as is their conflicting desires to both escape from Appalachia and to stay forever at home.

Prodigals weaves in the stories of other famous prodigals, including the alcoholic brother of the Brontë sisters, Jimmy Swaggart, the fallen televangelist; Robert Crumb, her brother’s beloved author of racist and sexist comic books; and Childers herself. The story examines the role of prodigals within the intimate tapestry of family life and beyond—to its larger sociocultural meanings.

Read some of the book’s reviews:

“An Appalachian childhood steeped in Pentecostalism, the Brontë siblings roaming the English moors, the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son: Sarah Beth Childers’ memoir triangulates between these and more. From the outset, it raises the question of who the prodigal is—the younger brother Childers loved and lost, too young, to mental illness, or Childers herself, who left West Virginia and her insular family to become a writer and professor. In prose that’s full of swerves and surprises, Childers tells and retells her brother’s story. This telling is an act of loving retrieval—even a kind of return. Riveting, luminous, memorable. I’ve read it three times and can’t wait to begin again.” — Jennifer Brice, author of Unlearning to Fly and Another North.

Prodigals is about the author’s grief as she explores—via memory, via writing, and via time—her brother Joshua’s mental illness and his loss. She came from a family that did not ascribe names and diagnoses to mental illness, no less Joshua’s, and she must not only find a variety of definitions for loss, love, and relationship but also for herself. This is a journey of self, intellect, and history, toward understanding.” —Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Wanting Radiance.

“A gorgeous meditation on family, place, and loss. In revisiting the life of her beloved brother, Sarah Beth Childers insists on bearing witness to people and places as they are while contemplating those who stay and those who leave, and the wide pulsing spaces left in their wake. Captivating and clear-sighted. A beautiful book.” —Sonja Livingston, author of Ghostbread.

Sarah Beth Childers is the author of Shake Terribly the Earth as well as numerous publications in literary journals and anthologies. She is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma State University and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

View the creative nonfiction essay “Beagle in the Road” by Sarah Beth Childers in issue 20 of Superstition Review.

Prodigals: A Sister’s Memoir of Appalachia and Loss, released on September 1 from the University of Georgia Press’s Crux Series in Creative Nonfiction. Purchase the book here.

Guest Post, Sarah Beth Childers: Writing about Grief without Mentioning It

 Joshua and his three sisters on his 7th birthday. Sarah Beth is in the Myrtle Beach shirt.

Years ago, when I was taking an undergraduate fiction writing class, the professor talked about the short fiction he wrote in the year after his mother’s death. He showed his work to a friend, and the friend told him, “I see your mother on every page.” My professor protested angrily, but he went home and realized it was true. He was writing fiction, not autobiographical, not about dead mothers, but deep down, he was writing about his personal loss.

I found something similar happening to me when I was writing “Beagle in the Road,” five years after my brother’s suicide. I was writing about a moment when I was thirteen years old, seventeen years before I lost my brother. At that point, Joshua was five and happy, likely playing with Hot Wheels cars or shooting outlaws in a computer game that came free in a box of cereal. My little brother had nothing to do with my decision to follow my beagle into a busy road, so he didn’t belong in the essay. Still, I found myself embedding my grief into every line, and unlike my professor, I was intensely aware that this was happening, surely because I was (and still am) in the midst of writing a memoir about Joshua. I knew I wouldn’t have written the piece at all if he hadn’t died. After a few years of witnessing my parents’ grief, the beagle memory came back to me, and I suddenly felt horror mixed with my old pride and gratefulness about the risk I’d taken that day.

When I came to the end of the essay, I struggled with how to close without my brother. Throughout the piece, I’d felt his five-year-old shadow running alongside my thirteen-year-old self, both of us buoyant in our innocence of everything that would come later. And in the end, I pictured my brother’s twenty-two-year-old body when I imagined myself dead on the road. So, I tried to shoehorn his suicide into the turn, explaining to readers why I saw this moment so differently years later, after I’d witnessed the broken health and malaise that can follow the loss of a child. But the suicide revelation kept feeling melodramatic, a disrespect to my lost brother and to my parents’ grief. Since Joshua wasn’t present on the essay’s surface, I hadn’t developed him as a character, and readers couldn’t mourn a brother they didn’t know. I finally realized I had to stay in the moment, focusing on the relationships between characters who were actually present: my beagle and me, my dad and my beagle, my dad and me. The audience would understand that my life and perspective had changed in the time since I rescued my beagle. The reason I had changed was beside the point.

Of course, I have my own personal readers like my professor’s friend, people who saw my brother on every page. My most important reader, my writer sister, got it immediately. A poet friend read the essay, expecting a piece about my childhood beagle, and she said, “Wow, this fits right into your memoir!” And it does fit. Eventually, when readers see the piece in context, they’ll know it’s about Joshua. When I describe my dad’s potential grief, they’ll think of that horrible day seventeen years later. They may even cringe as I do over that imagined image of my broken body, thinking of my brother’s body hanging in his closet. But I also know that context also isn’t necessary. Readers who didn’t know my professor couldn’t get the mother connection in his stories, but I’m sure they felt moved by the undercurrents of grief—likely something that’s often happening to me when I find myself moved by a story, essay, or poem in an unexpected way.

In the end, I couldn’t help myself. I was burning to mention Joshua, so I put him in my bio. In creative nonfiction, the biographical note inevitably changes readers’ perception of the essay, so I decided to take advantage of that. But let’s face it: not everyone reads bios. If everyone did, my own undergraduate students would never call female writers “he.” And I know that one-sentence mention of my brother isn’t nearly enough to allow the most careful readers to understand all of the Joshua resonances that exist for people who know me. So, for readers who don’t see this blog post, or connect the piece to my other work, I’ll be content to let that grief stay concealed within my body—my real body, my live body in the essay, my imagined smashed body in the essay—the place where grief always hides.