Will The Circle Be Unbroken
The New Press
407 pages / $25.95
Life And Death With Dignity
Review by Paul Corrigan
Studs Terkel has listened to another gem.
Most books are written. Terkel observes and lets others do the talking. He then arranges the storytelling of many individuals into a mosaic that tells his story. His latest book, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, defines the meaning of life by letting people talk about death.
Studs Terkel does not just listen to the words people tell him. He feels their stories. I first read Terkel in college. I remember reading Working for one of the obscure electives that I was fond of taking. I immediately felt a connection to the lives of a number of the workers appearing in the book. Terkel had the ability to allow a 20-year-old college student to identify with a middle-aged waitress. In this book, I identified with the case manager who pulled the plug on a woman, born a man, in her hospital room; but only after ensuring that she was redressed to look beautiful and comforted with the knowledge that the loose ends in her life were fixed. That is the magic of Studs Terkel. His empathy becomes your empathy. His acceptance of diversity becomes your acceptance of diversity. We stop talking and we start listening, not only to others but to ourselves.
Terkel is the rare historian who celebrates "ordinary" people in an extraordinary way. He understands that his subjects may laugh in the middle of their stories as a defense mechanism to control strong feelings, not because they believe the humiliation they suffered was funny. He also understands that even through the worst of times the human spirit has an ability to transcend pain and anguish. Like me, Terkel is agnostic. I believe that we live on in the lives we touched while we are here on earth. The flip side of that philosophy is that we have within ourselves those that went before us. In that important way there is immortality. I believe Terkel appreciates life because of this philosophy, not in spite of it.
I hope I can pass along to my children the special qualities Terkel has, a true interest in other people's lives and an acceptance of them. Could our leaders prepare for tactical nuclear warfare if they listened to Hiroshima victim Tammy Snider's story? Could those who promote "family values" that exclude gays and lesbians as parents do so after talking with lesbian mothers Kathy Fagan and Linda Gagnon? Would the boys who killed Matthew Shepard have struck those blows if they saw firsthand the compassion of Matta Kelly, the case worker described above? Maybe. I hope not.
Read Terkel's book, not only to learn about death, but to learn about life.
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