“Will the Circle be Unbroken?”
Author: Sean “Sean of the South” Dietrich
Publisher: Zondervan Books
Price: $24.99 (Hardcover)
Sean Dietrich has become truly famous for his blog posts which are eagerly, ritualistically, almost addictively, read by tens of thousands of people every morning.
When I was first told about this, I did not believe it myself, but it is so. These short daily columns are usually positive in nature, like the last few minutes of the CBS evening news.
Unexpectedly, without thought of reward, someone does a kindness for a stranger, returns a found wallet with money in it, adopts a crippled dog.
These short pieces have been published in a series of collections and should be read one at a time. That much goodness in concentrated form can be cloying.
I feared that this memoir might be cloying also, or sentimental, but it is decidedly not. It is better-written, darker, and more compelling than I had anticipated.
The book opens: “The day before my father shot himself, I saw a blue heron.” That heron, or identical herons, will become the totem animal of Dietrich’s father and appear at crucial moments in Sean’s emotional life.
This book, the story of Dietrich’s life, is a story of obsession, obsession with the father who is not there and yet controlled so much of the son’s emotional life, self-esteem, sense of possibilities.
The father, who was a steelworker, mechanic, welder, could sometimes be loving; there is a wonderful sequence where he climbs a fifty-foot tree to build Sean a tire swing in the yard. But he was an alcoholic prone to horrific, near homicidal, violence. He brutalizes his wife, breaking her cheekbones, knocking out teeth, beats his son, is taken to jail and, after release, blows his own brains out. The family is traumatized.
Sean will drop out of the seventh grade, which by itself seems impossible. Then he and his mother will work at blue-collar, low-paying jobs for many years, cleaning condos, delivering papers in the predawn dark, restaurant work, whatever they can get.
Sean who always had a musical gift, becomes a guitar player and competent singer in honky-tonk bands, earning additional small amounts to their income.
Sean will suffer feelings of inferiority, feelings which are buttressed when he falls for a rich girl who makes it painfully clear she believes he is not good enough, has no prospects, will go nowhere.
It is a life of survival, and not much changes, partly because of the lump of hate Sean feels for his dead father.
Until that poisonous ball of anger is excised, progress seems impossible.
But of course, there is a turnaround.
Sean and his mother get a lot of comfort from their church. He especially loves the Wednesday night potluck and it is at a fried chicken dinner he meets Jamie, a lovely girl from Brewton, Alabama who believes in him, and a happy marriage helps everything.
He returns to school, skipping grades 7-12 and going directly but painfully to community college, which was no box of chocolates. Sean has no gift for mathematics.
In his twenties, he feels a growing impulse to write, mainly about what he sees around him.
First, he tries short, human interest pieces, about fishing, about his beloved dog, Ellie Mae. Applying for a job writing a column he lands an interview with an unnamed newspaper. The editor declines to hire Sean and, she assures him, “I’m gonna give you some free advice that nobody gave me. Nobody wants to read stories that are about happy things. That isn’t how you sell books, newspapers, or magazines. People like things that are gut-wrenching….more blood and guts, less romance. I’m sorry.”
Dietrich has now published eleven books, including a novel. His work appears in “Southern Living” and “Newsweek,” and he is in demand as a speaker all over the South, spreading the good news.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.