In LESSONS IN PRINTING, Klancy Clark de Nevers reaches back in time to paint a portrait of her father and his eventual deterioration from mental illness. The memoir opens with a cross-country road trip Klancy took with her parents the summer she was 20, in 1953. What started as a high-spirited adventure soon turned somber as her father’s increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior alarmed both mother and daughter. Back at college, Klancy found herself coming home to be embarrassed by her father, while her mother tried to hide the extent of his mental illness.
While writing a sober story, de Nevers excels in weaving in the details that make a period of history and her father’s life come alive. For example, she brings the late 1920s into vivid focus as she describes her father’s exuberant road trip to visit friends in San Francisco, ending up in El Paso. She communicates the poignancy of her father playing second fiddle to his two older brothers, both of whom were afforded the college education he was denied. Instead, her father completed a mail order course called “Lessons in Printing” that allowed him to become a card-carrying member of the printer’s union.
de Nevers deftly juxtaposes the genial newspaper editor and owner, the skilled typesetter and handyman, with the heavy drinker and often silent father the family had to try to talk to around at the dinner table. As she gets older, and especially as after his death, de Nevers begins to seek healing from their strained relationship and more information on his illness, including medical records from when he was institutionalized. He heard voices, clearly self-medicated with heavy drinking, and may have been schizophrenic. He also may have had epilepsy.
One wishes de Nevers had spent more time exploring schizophrenia, epilepsy, and the stigma around these illnesses during her father’s life. Nevertheless, she is a fine storyteller who can sum up the contradictions of her father in such phrases as he was “a trade unionist and a Republican” where “labor troubles” inhabited the town as “naturally as barnacles and mussels cling to pilings.” Her father’s final newspaper editorial, in which he quotes Popeye the Sailor to say “I yam what I yam what I yam” sums up his insouciant fatalism.
Klancy Clark de Nevers has written a fascinating book about both early to mid-20th century life and a daughter’s struggle with her father’s mental illness and is recommended for tackling serious subjects in a compelling way that keeps the pages turning.
~Diane Reynolds for IndieReader