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A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance
Essays by Joe Mackall
“At the heart of this superb collection of essays is the essential and enduring question: how is it possible to live fully in the present without also honoring the ancestral blood flowing through us?”
Andre Dubus III
Publication Date: March 1, 2021
Paperback price: $15.99
As nonfiction writer Joe Mackall reaches age sixty—an age the novelist William Styron called “the hulking milestone of mortality”—he finds himself pinioned between past and future, struggling but mostly failing to abide in the present. Blindsided by his reaction to becoming a grandfather, he moves “toward the edge of a foreign land, the plains of an emotional dystopia.” He knows these feelings are connected in ways he doesn’t fully understand to life as a grandfather and as a man likely in the last third of his life. He worries about his country, an America increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, droned, downsized, teetering on the dream-edge of itself.
When he’s not agonizing over the future he and the world have made for his granddaughters, he wonders what he has inherited from his ancestors and what he owes them. How have their lives affected his life? Did they die secure in the knowledge that they had improved the planet for future generations? How has he been shaped by their stories? Why are some defined by their tragedies? Some by a marriage? Others by resentments? A few by their work? Too many by violence, including the murder of a beloved uncle living a secret life? And finally, he asks what he is offering his own grandchildren? Which stories will they tell and how will his role in their tales be defined?
The essays in Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance are not necessarily Mackall’s attempt to answer his queries, but rather his desire to fully explore them as a writer humbled and haunted by history, and as a man nurtured and gratified by the stories he has been told and the ones he must tell.
About the Author
Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage. He’s the co-founder and -editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and co-editor of River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction. His articles have been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. His essays have appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He’s an emeritus professor at Ohio’s Ashland University.
“At the heart of this superb collection of essays is the essential and enduring question: how is it possible to live fully in the present without also honoring the ancestral blood flowing through us? Deeply moving, often funny, always compelling, Yesterday’s Noise is a triumph by one of our finest essayists. I could read Joe Mackall every day, all year long, and this book is a gem.”
Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie
“Joe Mackall’s capacity for delight and dread fuel the stories in his essay collection, Yesterday’s Noise: A Family Legacy of Rage and Radiance. In one story he prances around a room playing dress up with his granddaughter while harboring fears of what might happen to her when she grows up. In another he meticulously recounts the story of his murdered uncle while inwardly anxious about probing the lives of those he loves. In a voice that is fresh, crisp, heart-breaking, funny, lyrical, and unrelentingly honest, Mackall explores a past-drenched present where “the stuff of forever is hidden,” fully aware that “by tomorrow it will be yesterday.” These are stories that square off against life’s mysteries, test the limits of love, and enlarge the heart.”
Steven Harvey, author of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder
“Joe Mackall’s marvelous new collection of essays occupy themselves with a struggle many of us find familiar: the role our past plays in the present while we worry about the future. Walloped by an unexpected and overwhelming love for his grandchildren, precipitating a profound (but intermittent) appreciation of the present, Mackall reassesses this difficult balancing act with a wry but scrupulous honesty, and a combination of humor and irony that roused me from a pandemic stupor.”
Abigail Thomas, author of Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life
Author’s Study Guide: For Readers
Discussion Groups, Teachers, and Students
What does the author mean when he writes that he is “humbled” and “haunted” by history? He writes “I am not a prisoner of the past, but I am certainly caught up in it—by how today becomes yesterday.” What are the distinctions between being a “prisoner of the past” and being “caught up” in it? Are there distinctions?
The author is not only obsessed with the past but also in the way the past becomes known, primarily through the stories told, by historians as well as family members. How has the author been molded by the stories of the past? How does he see his stories shaping the lives of his children and grandchildren?
How does the writer appear to reconcile (or not) his assertions about love in the passage “I understand that love is all we have, and I also realize how vulnerable love makes us”? Do you agree with the author’s philosophy on the nature of love?
Discuss what you believe the author means when he writes, “I often feel as though I’m moving toward the edge of an emotional dystopia. I know it’s connected in ways I don’t fully understand to life as a grandfather…life as an American in a country increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, droned, downsized, teetering on the dream edge of itself.” Do you share the writer’s concerns about our country’s future?
What aspects of the writer’s character are revealed in “The Little Girl at the Door”? Does your opinion of him change from the beginning to the end of the piece? If so, how and why?
In “The Private Wars of a Dying Storyteller,” the author describes his aging grandmother as achieving the perfect mix for storytelling, which he interprets as “memory, imagination and desire.” How do these elements work for the nonfiction storyteller? How might they complicate a creative nonfiction writer’s believability?
Discuss the last sentence in the essay “Words of My Youth.” “The slur just seems to have been out there, there and somehow not there, like incense, like the way a Whiffle ball whips and dips, the way adults laugh at things kids don’t understand, the way the background noise from a baseball game leaks out of transistor radios, the way factory fires flirt with the night sky, the way sonic booms burst the lie of silence.”
Discuss why and how the author uses first-, second- and third-person points of view and past and present tense in “By Force, Threat, or Deception.” Why does the author believe three points of view are necessary? Do you agree? Why does he shift between past and present tense? Are both imperative to the essay?
In the same essay the author writes competing versions of the night his uncle was murdered. Discuss why he does this. What does this say about the author’s belief in the nature of storytelling? Try to answer for yourself the following question the writer asks in “By Force, Threat, or Deception.” “Does loving somebody and being a writer give you a right to his or her story?”
Discuss why the author includes the story of the killdeer in the essay “Gazing at My Father Gazing.” How does the killdeer story reflect the concerns the writer has about the past, present and future in the more reflective sections of the essay? How does the story of the killdeer complement the themes of the essay?
The writer alludes to several historical figures in the book, most prominently Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown. Why are these “stop-times” included in the collection? What do you see in these brief stories that are also discussed in other essays?
What does the writer mean by the sentence that appears at the opening of the essay “Yesterday’s Noise”? He writes, “I believe on that day in the mountains of western Pennsylvania our genetic code shifted to accommodate the ugly truth that one of us had annihilated beauty.” Discuss the Charles Wright poem the author uses as the epigraph for this book: “How sweet the past is, no matter how wrong, or how/Sad./ How sweet is yesterday’s noise.”
Put Off My Sackcloth: Essays
by Annie Dawid
April 15, 2021
“If you are an artist hounded by a calling you can’t escape, this book is for you.”
Reginald McKnight, author of He Sleeps and White Boys
(Or ask at your favorite bookstore.)
Put Off My Sackcloth is a mosaic of essays about one writer’s journey through a life fraught with crippling interior darkness in an uncertain world to the salve she finds in her “shored-up ruins” and new maternal life beneath the lambent glow of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in South-Central Colorado.
The daughter of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and an American mother prone to suicidal depression, Annie Dawid, in these essays, traces the history of her life, pivoting between the hanging trees of her most despairing moments, the fouettés of her youth, her archetypal dig into the horrific mass suicides of Jonestown, and the aching “architectural wonders” of her beloved son, Elijah.
After her father’s death, Dawid finds in the wording of his will a “code” that sends her on a search for a new and better life. Dawid’s rich and gratifying intellect, her cultural and political insights are enmeshed with the decisive moments of her life that lead her into emotional maelstroms and, at times, psychological bankruptcy. And yet throughout these essays, we never lose sight of Dawid's compassionate, empathetic embrace of all those she encounters who stand on fragile shores.
As part of this journey, place looms large as an important character in the book. Sackcloth shines with the rural Colorado community of ranchers and artists who share with Dawid a sprawling valley of scattered coyote and spiraling constellations. Here, always, reigns the generosity of spirit, the life lesson shared, the simple hope carved out of this high mountain meadow land where Dawid lives with her son in an off-grid cabin amid cattle troughs and windmills and old pioneer tubs she fills with wildflower seed. Put Off My Sackcloth is an unblinking look at the life of one woman—daughter, mother, artist, scholar—who sought change and ultimately found illumination.
About the Author
Annie Dawid is the author of three books of fiction, one poetry chapbook, and has had several plays produced in Oregon and Colorado. She lives in the Wet Mountain Valley of South-Central Colorado, where she makes art and teaches online for the University of Denver. Find her author website at www.anniedawid.com.
Annie's Story: A Video
Praise for Put Off My Sackcloth
“Reading Annie Dawid’s essays for the first time, the question in my mind is: How have I lived so long in this world without reading Annie Dawid’s essays? In Put Off My Sackcloth, there are accidents and suicide attempts, drugs and accidents, guns and broken bodies—but Dawid’s intelligence and humor light up the darkest landscapes. In these essays, Dawid never flinches and when she can laugh, she laughs. She takes us down deep, but she shows us the sparkle of light glinting at the exit of the cave—and love? Love wins.”
Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies
“Annie Dawid’s essays in Put Off My Sackcloth, aren’t for the faint-hearted.”
Sarah Michaelson, producer of The Voice Box
“What demons must we survive? Why is death’s kiss too often sweet? When the coyotes sing at night, how do we answer the howl that calls for us to take our lives? For many years Annie Dawid has been listening, writing.”
E. Ethelbert Miller, writer and literary activist
“Part memoir, part essay collection, part author’s journal, Put Off My Sackcloth is completely fascinating.”
Rebecca Moore, author of Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple
“These essays bear witness to a life lived with emotional courage and intellectual integrity. Through dark and harrowing years of personal struggle, and her parallel inquiry into the psychology of Jonestown, the solaces of community, motherhood, and her beloved landscape in rural southern Colorado weave their bright threads.”
Carol Guerrero-Murphy, author of Chained Dog Dreams and Bright Path Dark River
“If you are an artist hounded by a calling you can’t escape, this book is for you.”
Reginald McKnight, author of He Sleeps and White Boys
for Readers, Discussion Groups, Teachers, and Students
These questions serve as a guide to help readers make their way through this collection of essays and deepen their understanding of this book and Annie Dawid’s journey through this book. Readers can use them as ways to open discussions with others about the book. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Simply use them as another part of the story.
1. The title to Put Off My Sackcloth includes the word “Essay.” Yet, in the preface, the editor likens this collection to a mosaic. Given the definition of a mosaic, what implications does the word have for the organization of Put Off My Sackcloth that “essay collection” may not? What other connotations does the word “mosaic” have that might apply to these essays?
2. Dawid very specifically calls attention to the dates pinpointing the year of her life the essay describes. The earliest essay covers 1976 and the most recent essay 2020. Given that these essays cover so much of Dawid’s life, why do you think she chose not to put them in chronological order? What effect does the date for each essay have on your reading of the collection?
3. The essays in Put Off My Sackcloth are not directly spiritual essays, yet the book, including its title, contains quotes and epigraphs from the Psalms. What do you think was Dawid’s purpose in creating that connection to the spiritual? How is your reading of the essays shaped by this connection?
4. Dawid refers to T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “Four Quartets,” several times in the book. In her essay, “A Writer’s Journal, Part II,” she says that she studied the “Four Quartets” for “a kind of answer,” as she dealt with her despair of the world. Given the excerpts included in the book on pages 20, 21 and 133, what kind of “answer” do you think she found in them? Or hoped to find?
5. The “spine” of the collection includes many essays describing her experience writing a novel about the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, when followers of a cult committed mass suicide at the direction of their leader. Dawid becomes fixated on writing about Jonestown, giving up writing another novel she had originally planned to research, quitting her teaching job at Lewis & Clark College so she can move to the remote mountain valley of Westcliffe and continue to work on her Jonestown novel, then spending more than a decade pursuing a suitable publisher for it. Thinking about the personal stories in the other essays, why do you think the Jonestown massacre and the novel she wrote about it are so important to Dawid? How does moving back and forth between Dawid’s personal stories and the Jonestown essays affect the way you read and understand this collection? What do you see as Dawid’s vision for this organization?
6. Place is very important to Dawid. Why do you think this academic, cosmopolitan New York daughter of a wealthy Jewish refugee finds the remote, rural area of Westcliffe and its valley so important to her sense of well-being? As Dawid writes about Westcliffe and the inhabitants of this small community, how does she keep these essays from feeling too isolated and insular for her readers?
7. In this collection, Dawid describes several disturbing moments of crisis when she contemplates killing not only herself, but her child. How does she manage to present herself as a sympathetic narrator in these essays, one with whom the reader can empathize? Or does she? Why or why not?
8. Dawid ends her collection with an essay written about 1999, in which she is searching for a bassinet for her unborn child. The last line of the essay, the last line of the book, is spoken by Baba, a trusted wise woman, who throughout the book aids Dawid in her darkest times. Baba says, “Hell sometimes disguises paradise.” Why do you think Dawid chose to end this collection with that sentence? Which moments of paradise were disguised as hell?
9. Dawid’s Jewish background and the exotic lineage of her son, Elijah, are threads she returns to several times in this collection. Do the heritages of Dawid and her son serve as lenses through which Dawid sees the world? How?
10. Many publishers are hesitant about publishing essay collections instead of memoirs, convinced that readers want to read a whole “story,” with a beginning, middle, and end. Many essayists choose to write what’s called “linked” essays that create an arc for the reader and the author, a feeling that the author has unveiled for the reader a journey the author takes that leads to some kind of change, some kind of transformation for the author. Do these essays chart such a journey? How would you describe this arc?
--compiled by Kathryn Winograd