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As a child in a grand house, Leslie Garis spent 'a lot of time in the dumbwaiter, moving up and down behind the walls, listening to voices', and she says this is where her writing career began. She has written many literary articles and profiles of writers.
She is also the granddaughter of Howard and Lilian Garis, prolific authors of famous children's books such as The Bobbsey Twins and the 'Uncle Wiggily' series. Her father, Roger Garis, was also a writer, in particular producing plays that he hoped would bring him longed for literary success. She had a strong and affectionate relationship with her father ('my first intellectual companion'), and a protective one, as he was neither quite talented enough to achieve that literary dream, nor strong enough to withstand the rejections.
Happiness and goodness were considered to go together in the Garis family senior, an ideal perpetuated in the torrent of children's literature they produced. If you weren't happy, then you weren't good either, which meant that depression could be interpreted as a character flaw. Leslie Garis shows the falsity and cruelty of this ideal, and notes ironically at one point that 'realism has never been this family's strong suit'.
Leslie Garis shows the reader her world from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. She lived with her family (and from 1951, this included her paternal grandparents) on a large property called 'The Dell', in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Garis writes the book very much from the child's point of view, and she was an intelligent and perceptive child. She was initially excited to have her magical grandparents come to live with them, but this changed. Her invalided paternal grandmother behaved strangely and treated her son as if he were incapable of responsibility and of adult life. Her influence was malicious, and after her death, Roger is depicted as if he were inhabited by her ghost. 'Grampy' was more like she expected, but also seriously flawed. Encountering him telling stories surrounded by bewitched children, she sees another side:
I felt a sudden pang of isolation, realizing all at once what it must have been like for my father when he was a child, watching his father charm other children while he had little time for his own. Grampy was a professional enchanter but a remote father...
The author records the bitter disappointments suffered by her father, literary and personal, which contributed to his terrible disintegration, as well as his pharmaceutical drug addiction. She describes the effects his strained and crumbling health had on her tiny mother Mabel and two brothers, as well as his father, who developed an alcohol problem. For a while, Mabel Garis was calling ambulances for both her husband and her father-in-law.
The use of language is notably skilful. The reader can track the change in Roger Garis from an effortlessly elegant man to one who is spiralling out of control. The imagery is sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful: '[h]is wrist was like a heron's neck', 'Dad trailed sadness like a long cloak', '[m]y father's unhappiness lived inside me like a stowaway in a moving vessel'.
House of Happy Endings is a strange book, and reads slightly awkwardly in the early chapters, perhaps because of the child's viewpoint and inevitable holes in understanding, and some idiosyncratic phrasing. Leslie Garis' exposure to the disconcerting behavior of her grandmother casts a disturbing pall over the reader as well. But the awkwardness is short-lived; the story is courageously told.
There are many details and discoveries that give richness and fullness to the Garis story, and sometimes surprise both the reader and the author. For instance, Leslie discovers a trunk full of carefully copied letters and preserved receipts from over the decades of her father's life. They showed just how much he was still capable of organizing, writing and achieving even while ill.
Leslie Garis' treatment of her family story is remarkable for its frankness, deep sympathy, and stark depiction of mental illness, and its biological and environmental influences. She has written an exceptionally moving and enlightening memoir.
© 2008 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia