Welcome Home by Lucia Berlin
Welcome Home is one piece of a two-part follow-up to the celebrated posthumous 2015 publication of Lucia Berlin’s collection A Manual for Cleaning Women. Unlike the occasionally impressive but overreaching Evening in Paradise, which may have included about ten stories too many, the fragmented memoir Welcome Home is a triumphant joy to read. This slim volume is by no means ephemera: Welcome Home is a vital piece of the Lucia Berlin story that expands beyond the lore surrounding the author and her overlooked and under-recognized career. Consisting of an unfinished, illustrated memoir and a spread of letters written to friends and poets, Welcome Home is an inspirational chronicle of a woman discovering her voice.
Jeff Berlin, the author’s son, has lovingly compiled an array of old photographs to illustrate the first half of Welcome Home. Berlin’s text episodically chronicles each of the many homes she lived in throughout her life, from Alaska to Santa Fe to Santiago, Chile. The stories of each of these homes are sweetly candid: in Mullan, Idaho, for example, where she momentarily lived during her childhood, “the kitchen floor really sloped,” Berlin recalls. “I spent hours rolling tin cans down to the bottom. Tuna beats pineapple.” Berlin’s father worked in the mining industry, which resulted in their family repeatedly moving. His profession brought Berlin to Chile in her teenage years, an era seen in “Andado: A Gothic Romance,” one of the highlights of Evening in Paradise. One of the most thrilling elements of Berlin’s fiction is wondering what kind of author could have penned such a worldly and diverse story; Welcome Home is a sonorous response to the autobiographical queries of her fiction — a touching, illuminated counterpoint. Further, to see Berlin in photos does a remarkable thing to her narrative voice as a writer. While the “I” in her fiction may not exactly be her, it’s a disarmingly powerful experience as a reader to see that a real person is behind those pages: not just a writer but a little girl once, a precocious teenager, a loving mother, and a devoted, if at times frustrated, wife.
The second half of Welcome Home features a carefully curated selection of letters. These seventy pages are spellbinding and imbued with overwhelming honesty and vivacity. (It would be a shame if FSG didn’t publish a volume or two of Berlin’s complete letters.) While most of Berlin’s dispatches are addressed to the poet Edward Dorn and his wife, Helene, there are two letters addressed to the author that provide this section with an exceptional emotional force.
First, the section opens with a letter from Berlin’s father, received around Christmastime when she was eight years old. It’s 1944 and Ted Brown writes from overseas:
“The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy, almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family, and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world and though we may live on a mountain peak one year and in a black canyon the next, that our beautiful house will be built in our hearts.”
The kindness, worldliness, love and desperation of Ted Brown’s letter permeates the entirety of Lucia’s letter-writing life. As an adult, she writes the Dorns from a range of varying locations, all with the same unbridled passion and literary devotion. The constant through these letters is their heart, regardless of their geography.
These letters also expose a quiet angst and dissatisfaction in Berlin. As early as seventeen Berlin writes a friend that she’s “depressed as hell”, and that “all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do.”
Later in her life, when she leaves her piano-playing husband Race Newton for another jazz musician named Buddy Berlin, an all-caps letter appears, addressed to to one “PROFESSOR EDWARD DORN”:
“LUCIA AND KIDS LEFT LAST NIGHT WITH BERLIN. ABSOLUTELY NO WARNING OR SIGNS. SHE IS IRRATIONAL.”
Signed, “RACE.” Readers will be knocked over by the drama of Berlin’s first marriage falling apart, but they will also run to Berlin’s side knowing that those warnings and signs can be found in each of her letters if read closely enough. Berlin was a woman in search of her heart and her voice, struggling against marital and societal expectations and striving to be the best and most fully-realized woman she could be. It’s no surprise Berlin was moderately successful in her life and is so celebrated now: Welcome Home reveals she has been a terrific, confident writer all along, and showcases the momentous strides she made in both her career and her identity.
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