Book Review

 
Name All The Animals: A Memoir

Name All the Animals: A Memoir

Author: Alison Smith
Publisher: Scribner
Page Count: 319 (hardcover)

By Rev. Mark Ralls

(UMCom) -- As a child, Alison had two great certainties in her life. One was Roy. Confident and good-natured, he was the ideal older brother. And, she, "pliant, perpetually ill-informed, and stubbornly naïve," made the "perfect little sister." Inseparable, they built a fort where nobody else was allowed and invented games like "ghost baseball" where no one else was necessary. They were so close that their mother even gave them a single pet name to share - "Alroy."

And, losing faith is not surrendering some bland set of beliefs. What we lose is God.
Alison was also certain of Jesus Christ. Her faith took root in a "great flood plane of belief" where an unusually devout family merged with a supportive Catholic community; a place where not believing in God was like refusing to believe in "oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." Here, Christ was more than an abstract savior. He was Alison’s "most intimate friend, … more real" to her than even the other kids she met at school.

Name All the Animals: A Memoir is Alison Smith’s tender account of what it is like to lose both of these certainties in a single day. When she was fifteen, Roy was killed in an automobile accident. Seeking solace from Christ, Alison receives nothing but silence. Her description of the day Roy vanished and Jesus walked out of her life reminds us that the categories we use to explain such experiences are insufficient. We never merely suffer grief. Instead, we lose those who once made us complete. And, losing faith is not surrendering some bland set of beliefs. What we lose is God. Such deep, personal losses are literally heart breaking. In this her first book, Smith invites us to walk with her through a journey of loss, allowing us to experience the painful unraveling of faith and hope.

Yet, despite its tragic theme, Name All the Animals never dissolves into despair. It is a witness to the tenacity of love. It displays the love of a community. When Roy dies, family friends overcome their own feelings of helplessness with touching expressions of concern. One of the most powerful scenes describes how neighbors rushed to the Smith home as soon as they heard the news. "They just got in their cars and drove to us, or opened their front doors, forgetting to close them, walked into our yard, and stood there… . Mrs. Henderson wore only one earring. Mrs. Wilson clutched a telephone to her chest, the wall cord trailing behind her as she ran across the street."

To call this memoir an impressive debut by a gifted young writer would be to underestimate both the book and its author. It is, I believe, a work of art.
It is also an intimate tale of romantic love. Alongside the story of Roy’s death, Smith artfully weaves a coming of age memoir about her first love. The confusing power of her attraction is multiplied by its scandalous nature in her traditional Catholic community. And, like many first loves, it both wounds and heals.

Most of all, this book is about family love. The ties that bind mother, father and sister to a lost young man are never severed. And, the three who are left doggedly choose to love even when they cannot fully understand. This wonderful memoir serves as a flesh and blood portrait of 1 Corinthians 13. It reminds us that somehow through it all, some measure of faith, hope and love abide, but, without a doubt, the greatest of these is love.

To call this memoir an impressive debut by a gifted young writer would be to underestimate both the book and its author. It is, I believe, a work of art. Like all true art, the gifts of the artist are abundantly evident but never allowed to distract from the work itself. Alison Smith tells her story in some of the most beautifully crafted prose I have ever read. Yet, in the end, it is the beauty of the story itself that shines through. When I finished this book, I didn’t just feel admiration. I felt grateful, and I think you will too.

Share your comments about this book with other readers. Link to online discussion, please begin the discussion with the following question: Have there been times in your life when you’ve felt as if you’ve lost your faith? If so, how did you work through it?

Share your comments about this book with other readers.

The Rev. Mark Ralls is senior pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Brevard, N.C.

Please be aware that when you purchase a copy of this book through UMC.org, you are directly supporting this ministry.



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