With simple, elegant language, Samuel Shem captures ‘The Spirit of the Place’

July 7th, 2009 by admin

By Laura Marshall, Special to The Berkshire Eagle

Sunday, August 17
“The Spirit of the Place, “by Samuel Shem
Kent State University Press, 334 pages

When Orville Rose was a 6-year-old kid back in Columbia, N.Y., he had an epiphany: He was connected to something larger than himself. It was something to do with the clouds floating by overhead; as they passed
him and went on to other places, he felt that inevitable click into a bigger world.

Thrilled, he ran indoors to share his vision with his mother. “Something else!” he shouted. “Mom, I’m part of something else!”

And his mother, Selma Rose, gave a withering sigh. “Orville-doll, there’s nothing else but this.”

And that was the beginning of Orville’s flight.

At the opening of “The Spirit of the Place,” the latest, heartbreakingly beautiful novel from Newton author Samuel Shem, it is 1984 and 40-year-old Orville has returned to Columbia after years and years away.

He’s been running for a long time, looking for something greater than himself, something outside himself, something better than what he sees in Columbia and what he calls, with distaste, Columbians. Now a physician, he has seen the world with Doctors without Borders; he has tried on the life of a wanderer and found it to his liking; and he has discovered love dressed up as an eccentric, bewitching New Age yogi
who spouts just enough enlightenment to keep him confused.

But nothing he has seen out in the world has prepared him for what he finds back at home.

Orville has come back for his mother’s funeral, but because of his rootless existence his sister’s letter with the details of the services was delayed weeks in reaching him and he has missed it.

When he hears about his mother’s will, he wishes he had missed his flight back to the United States. For she has left him everything — her house, her car and $1 million — on one condition: that he stay in Columbia and live in his boyhood home for exactly one year and 13 days from the date of his arrival in town.

At first, Orville balks. Not even the money can keep him there, in what he sees as a kind of backwater cesspool, full of horrible memories. Everywhere he goes, people know him and he knows them, and
that’s exactly what he doesn’t want.

Life, however, gets in the way. First, his sister says he can’t see his niece if he doesn’t intend to serve his term, and Orville and 11-year-old Amy are kindred spirits. So he sticks around for a few days to see if Amy’s mom won’t soften up a little.

Then he visits his former mentor, Dr. Bill Starbuck, the town doc, who patches up the locals with the snake oil he calls “Starbusol.” Turns out the octogenarian wouldn’t mind an extra hand dealing with the
bumps and scrapes and gunshot wounds the hamlet’s residents seem to get themselves into.

Then Orville gets a letter from his deceased mother, and it seems if he stays he’ll keep receiving them until his sentence is up. If he goes, well, he’ll never find out what she has to say from beyond the grave.

Then his mother starts appearing to him, flying around the ghostly, empty house and the dumpy little town. And boy, does she have a lot to say.

Then he gets a call from his beloved, whose name happens to be Celestina Polo, and Celestina Polo tells him she will be unable to join him in swampy Columbia as planned, as she has fallen in with a wealthy banker who plans to finance a yoga commune –oh, but she does adore him and cannot wait to see him again and if it is not to be now then perhaps someday.

And then, in the first shock of grief over losing Celestina, Orville meets a lovely single mother, a widow named Miranda. She’s the local historian, and they share a single sweet moment together on a rainy
afternoon. And that’s when things get complicated.

“The Spirit of the Place” is a rare ode to home, not only to finding a place in the world but to connecting with someone who feels like home. It’s a love song to history, global and national and regional and local and personal. It’s an essay on the power and fallibility of medicine, told by a doctor– Samuel Shem is the pen name of Dr. Stephen Bergman, who graduated from Harvard Medical School, had a private practice in psychiatry for nearly 30 years, and in 1978 published “The House of God,” a novel used in the curriculum of medical schools today. It’s the story of a man and his mother, the give-and-take of that relationship, the slow revelations that keep flowing between the two even with distance or time or death keeping them apart.

What makes the book so rare is its fragile beauty. Shem’s language is simple and elegant even as he delves into the essences of his characters. And he doesn’t shy away from their complexity –rather, he embraces it, allowing us to see them as whole, imperfect, impatient, reckless, uncertain, vulnerable, delirious, selfish, loving.

Orville and Miranda and her small son, Cray, are about as complex and real and fragile and beautiful as characters can be, and their story is uplifting in its unorthodox trajectory.

Because sometimes it’s not about connecting with something larger.

Sometimes it’s about just connecting.

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