A Review of James M. Chesbro’s A Lion in the Snow
March 22, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Shamae Budd
I escaped the mayhem of the birthday party with a slice of cake, sinking with a sigh into the woven fabric of the front sitting-room couch. I was there to support my friend—mother of the birthday boy—but none of the screeching children belonged to me. A ten-year-old girl sat near the window, knees pulled into her chest. I said a few words in greeting, but she didn’t respond. I assumed she was shy. I let her be, spearing a piece of cake—enjoying the quiet. But as I lifted the fork to my mouth, a woman entered the room and asked tiredly, “Are you ready to apologize?” The girl shot back a withering, “No.” My mouth still slightly agape, I realized I had unwittingly settled myself in timeout.
Their terse conversation continued, and I seemed to see a past version of myself in the girl, a future version of myself in the woman. Certainly I had played similar scenes alongside my own mother as an irascible teen. And now, nearing thirty, my husband and I had begun talking about starting a family, having children (who would inevitably become teenagers, as this girl was reminding me). I seemed to be seeing double: a moment that could have been pulled from both my future and my past.
Much like this quiet exchange between a mother and daughter, James M. Chesbro’s debut collection of essays, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, invited me to consider the duality of parenthood. He writes, “All sons are heirs and successors to the way they are fathered.” Chesbro is a devoted husband and father of three, but he is also the son of parents who fought and separated, a father who died young—and these two sides of Chesbro’s experience with parenthood consistently inform each other. Similar to E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” Chesbro sees flashes of his deceased father in himself, and flashes of himself in his son—a circularity that becomes both a gift and a challenge.
In “Footsteps,” Chesbro recalls nervously sitting in a cardiologist’s office, not long after his father’s pulmonary failure: “I want to live longer than my dad,” he says, determined not to inherit his father’s legacy of heart disease. And in “Overtime,” he describes himself stomping to the attic after a disappointing football game, reflecting:
When Dad was alive, as I grew older, I vowed to keep football in perspective… And yet, this is how he would have reacted—stunned into silent anger. Dad shakes his head in my memory, and I shake mine back at him. Get a grip, Dad, I think to myself. But here I am in the attic.
These tensions felt familiar—I, too, have been startled by little habits and tones of voice that remind me suddenly of my mother. I see her in a gesture of my hands while I am speaking; I see her in a woman at a birthday party, and am startled when I see myself there, too. What lifts Chesbro’s essays from mere recollection into insight is his ability to move between everyday ephemera and self-scrutiny, revealing the complexity of a self that is at once both son and father.
These sometimes competing roles of father and son intersect compellingly in “Trains.” Chesbro hopes that an inherited set of toy trains will help rekindle a connection with his father, but as he unwraps the trains in the attic he finds only “the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with Allstate, and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash.” The heartbreak is in the mundanity of the detail—the devastating ordinariness of the objects appearing in stark contrast with Chesbro’s hopes for almost transcendental discovery. Eventually, Chesbro allows his son, James, to play with the precious toy trains, which leads, unexpectedly, to the father-son connection Chesbro was hoping to discover: “James struck the red train against the track over and over and over again, like a match to a matchbook. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.” In the hands of his son James, the trains—and memories of Chesbro’s father—come back to life.
This shift from empty-handed grief toward renewed life and wonder in “Trains” beautifully reflects the movement and organization of the collection as a whole. Chesbro’s father—who is so forcefully, even painfully present in Part I of the collection—seems to drift quietly into the background as the collection winds down, not disappearing entirely, but informing Chesbro’s fathering in ways that cause him to connect, to be present, rather than to disengage. Part II—often humorous and filled with slice-of-life essays on parenting—becomes a celebration of Chesbro’s own fatherhood, and especially his young son, James. Chesbro’s re-enactments of wildly rambunctious family dinners, ER waiting rooms, and tumbling block towers reminded me of Brian Doyle’s laughing reverence for family life. And Chesbro’s honest depictions of the joy, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder of fatherhood ultimately left me smiling with anticipation for the day when I will be the mother of that belligerent little girl at a birthday party: participating in a scene I have so far only experienced from the perspective of a daughter.
Shamae Budd received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. She lives in Utah at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, and when she is not writing, she can generally be found among the aspen and pine, on a yoga mat, at the craft store, or walking her big red poodle in the park.