Springfield Scene Magazine Book Review: Brought To Our Senses
Brought To Our Senses, the debut novel by Springfield writer Kathleen H. Wheeler, tells the story of a family dealing with their mother’s frightening descent into Alzheimer’s disease. The well-crafted story draws on Wheeler’s first-hand experience both as a child of divorce and the cruel disease that claimed her mother’s life.
The novel revolves around Janice Kraus, a long-time divorcee whose four grown children begin noticing her increasing bouts of forgetfulness and often bizarre behavior. When her escapades prove dangerous to herself and others, they are forced to take legal and medical action to insure Janice’s safety. As they try to cope with the complexities of the disease, along with navigating the labyrinth of the legal and medical systems that are designed to protect the rights of patients while also becoming obstructive at times, the severely dysfunctional siblings struggle to form a cohesive unit. Unfortunately, childhood resentments and unresolved conflicts frequently flare up, threatening to torpedo their fragile alliance.
The story takes place primarily in Springfield and central Illinois, with the exception of flashbacks that relate Janice’s difficult childhood in Nebraska. Springfield readers will enjoy the shout-outs to local favorites such as Gabatoni’s pizza and Mel-O-Cream Donuts.
The third-person narrative is mostly told from the viewpoint of the youngest—and favorite—child, Elizabeth. The family’s eldest and only son, Tom, fled Springfield after high school graduation and never looks back until Janice’s illness, when he comes to regret what he sees as abandonment of his mother and sisters. Jessica, the oldest daughter, was forced to be a substitute mother to her younger sisters while their mother worked long hours at her office job. Resentful, she moves out as soon as she is able, leaving middle sister Teri in charge of Elizabeth. Never feeling loved by their mother, she is openly hostile, even abusive at times, to Elizabeth. Teri acts out her unhappiness with outrageous behavior and winds up a single mother like her own mother, struggling to make ends meet.
Elizabeth, of course, seems to live a perfect life, with a doting husband, two beautiful children, a college degree, and a lavish home – all the more reason for the other girls to resent the golden girl. Because of her favored status with their mother, the bulk of the caregiver role and decision making falls on her shoulders, though all four siblings eventually share the responsibilities, albeit often grudgingly.
Their father, Ron, is largely absent throughout the book, though he makes a reappearance in the latter chapters. Elizabeth lives her life blaming her father for the demise of her parents’ marriage, realizing only late in Janice’s illness that there was another side to her parents’ divorce.
Wheeler approaches the serious subject of Alzheimer’s soberly, rarely resorting to humor. Among the few exceptions are scenes dealing with Janice’s early days in the retirement home when she gleefully conspires with another resident, Bruce, to wreak havoc and make unsuccessful escape attempts.
Wheeler’s writing is heavy on dialogue, an area where the writer shines. Conversations flow naturally, keeping the story moving forward at a fast clip. It’s a useful technique when describing such a debilitating disease. In another’s hands, the book could have been depressing.
In an unusual treatment, Wheeler has labeled each book chapter with a song title of one of British musician Sting’s iconic compositions, followed by a few poignant lines from the songs.
Those who are intimately acquainted with Alzheimer’s in their family may at times find the book emotionally trying to read. Familiar rites of passages such as taking away car keys, obtaining guardianship, signing DNR papers, and visiting nursing care facilities are described in excruciating detail. Particularly wrenching are the descriptions of Janice’s decline and death.
The book ends on a positive note as the siblings finally make peace with their pasts and each other—a phenomenon they attribute to their mother’s strong will to live until this feat was accomplished.
The author is a graduate of the University of Illinois and has worked as a marketing communications professional for ad agencies and corporations. She lives in Springfield with her husband and two children. Visit BroughtToOurSenses.com or contact her at Kathy @ AuthorKathleenHWheeler.com.
Brought To Our Senses was released on November 1, 2016, by Attunement Publishing, ISBN 9780996555531, paperback $16, available from all major online booksellers. Portions of the proceeds of each book sale will be donated to organizations that support dementia patients, family caregivers, and research to find a cure.
Reviewed by Robyn A. Bouillon
Springfield Scene Magazine Nov/Dec 2016