Archive for February, 2015

Reprinted with permission by THE IN PRINT REVIEW, January 2015 issue

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A PLACE TO CALL HOME by Mary Ellen Stelling and Peter James Stelling

At a time when genealogy research and family histories are becoming more popular, those involved in such endeavors are usually left with a disorganized jumble of index cards, notebooks, and legal pads. When the work is done, the lineage sleuths have their shining moments regaling kith and kin with stories of immigrant journeys and familial links to the famous and infamous. Very few, however, take the time to turn such research into a book, which is sad; because every family has a story.

A PLACE TO CALL HOME started out as a number of written family remembrances and personal observations by poet Mary Ellen Stelling. Later, her son, Peter James Stelling would novelize the memoirs, bridging the vignettes into a cohesive narrative and creating a roman a clef which has, like all good family histories: humor, pathos, and an occasional skeleton.

The story is told in first person by Angela Morrison (later Seiffert), the daughter of a well-to-do family from the Pennsylvania coal country. Her father was a local Princeton-educated banker, while her mother hailed from one of the wealthier families in the next town. Angela is born into privilege at the beginning of the twentieth century; a time when society was rigidly stratified by class and where good families exhibited good manners because good manners dictated the law. Any breech of that code – no matter how slight -could be considered unforgivable, with judgment being swift and penalties lasting a lifetime for the offender.

Angela recounts the world as she, and America itself, grow up in it. As a stateside child observer of World War I, she finds joy in the town parades but fears that her own father might not be coming home each time he leaves the house. While the Great War would end many of the monarchies and social orders of Europe, the Jazz Age would end many of the mores and traditions in the United States, and Angela would be profoundly affected by it.

In 1921, Angela’s mother, Lenore, secretly receives an inheritance that makes her extremely rich. The new wealth allows her to escape the chains of small town Pennsylvania confinement. She divorces her husband, eventually moves to New York, and lives a riotous life of parties, love affairs, and shopping sprees. A lifetime of convention is suddenly commuted, and despite the fact that she is the custodial parent of a very young child, the freewheeling flapper within Lenore emerges with a vengeance.

Angela, who is close to her father, is suddenly torn from the surroundings to which she is accustomed. She is hastily taken by her mother into the bright lights of the city which would serve ultimately to illuminate Lenore’s character and choices. The young girl witnesses acts of surprising – almost maternal – kindness to others on the part of her mother but often finds herself the recipient of the same woman’s neglectful actions. Throughout her childhood, Angela is shuttled back and forth from New York to Pennsylvania. At times it seems both mother and daughter are glad to be free of each other during these sojourns; but there seems to be a genuine affection when they are reunited, even if that affection takes some work.

The incidents and people that enter into the story are colorful and entertaining. Each of them leaves their mark in a mostly positive way on the storyteller’s psyche. Their memories often lighten events, which without them might be more dismal. As a child, Angela has a unique perspective of her country. She lives in the metropolis of Manhattan but can identify with the rural small town where she visits for extended periods. She, like America, is growing into something greater. She is an unwitting student of the times, soaking in the knowledge thrust upon her but not fully comprehending what it all means.

The most compelling part of the book comes in its fifth and final part. Here, young Angela along with her mother, step-father and half-brother relocate to Winter Park, Florida. Under the warm tropical sun, in a state undergoing its own development, the little girl enters adulthood. She is somewhat wise beyond her years, taught by the life lessons she has experienced. She is rebellious yet respectful; happy but hesitant. During her time in the Sunshine State she meets a dashing young man named Phillip Seiffert with whom she elopes and begins a new life. A life of her own.

Phillip is recognized as a smart, ambitious and well mannered fellow; but in 1930s Florida, there are not many employment opportunities. The road he travels leads him to a series of odd jobs. His talents eventually send him briefly to New York, where he sings with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and at one point appears in a screen test for a medium early in its infancy, called television. He later returns to Florida and through a chance meeting gets a job in a local department store. The job becomes a career and the fortunes of the couple begin to change for the better.

A PLACE TO CALL HOMEĀ is about the search for stability set against the backdrop of rapidly changing times. But more importantly, it is a well told story about personal growth and lessons learned. When Angela finally discovers her own inner strength, she suddenly becomes complete, the product of her own experience. Like a diamond that forms under pressure, she shines in one final, dramatic moment. The book leaves the reader with optimism and the awareness that on the circuitous road of life, all travels end at a place called home.

Kevin J. Martinez