The Fall of a Sparrow

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Overview

Robert Hellenga, bestselling author of The Sixteen Pleasures, once again reveals his profound understanding of the strength and resilience of the human spirit in a compelling and masterful novel.
Alan Woodhull ("Woody"), a classics professor at a small Midwestern college, finds himself convinced that life has taught him all the lessons he has to learn: After the tragic death of his beloved oldest daughter during a terrorist bombing in Italy seven years ago, his wife has left him...

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Overview

Robert Hellenga, bestselling author of The Sixteen Pleasures, once again reveals his profound understanding of the strength and resilience of the human spirit in a compelling and masterful novel.
Alan Woodhull ("Woody"), a classics professor at a small Midwestern college, finds himself convinced that life has taught him all the lessons he has to learn: After the tragic death of his beloved oldest daughter during a terrorist bombing in Italy seven years ago, his wife has left him and his two remaining daughters have grown up and moved away. Yet his decision to attend the trial of the terrorists and to return to the scene of the tragedy marks the beginning of a new life and the awakening of a new love.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The Fall of the Sparrow by Robert Hellenga is a proud testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Like his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of the Sparrow links the American Midwest and Italy. Yet while the The Sixteen Pleasures explores a young girl's sexual awakening, The Fall of the Sparrow offers a powerful tale about one family's struggle to heal itself after the tragic death of its eldest daughter. This powerful novel demonstrates how, in the author's words, "it's not the great stories that give meaning to the little ones; it's the other way round."

At the heart of the novel is Alan "Woody" Woodhull, an enthusiastic blues guitar-playing classics professor at St. Clair, a small midwestern college. His beloved daughter, Cookie, was killed in Italy in a neofascist terrorist bombing in 1980. When the story begins, seven years after the bombing, Woody is painfully alone: His wife, Hannah, has left him and entered a convent, and his two surviving daughters have moved on and left home. He finds himself at the crossroads of grief, convinced that life has dished him all the lessons there are to learn, yet unable to lose the hope that something else must be in store for him.

Two events send Woody into a life-altering tailspin: the arrest of Angela Starppalfelci, the woman who placed the bomb in the train station, and an intense sexual affair with one of his students. The fallout from these events irrevocably changes the course of his life, forcing him to abandon his teaching job and leavetheUnited States to attend the terrorist's trial. As his vita nuova begins, Woody gradually emerges from his sorrow and is awakened to new, promising love in Italy.

The character of Woody is an "impressively well-rounded and endearingly decent human being" (Kirkus Reviews), and readers will come to care about him as if he were a family member. A blues aficionado (Woody sings and is partial to National Steel guitars), he revels in le cose buone della vita — including Greek, Latin, and Persian fables, the hooting of owls, and all things Italian, including spaghetti carbonara.

The Fall of the Sparrow has already received rave reviews. Check out what Publishers Weekly had to say:

A wealth of factors...make Hellenga's second novel irresistible: resourceful storytelling skills, a lightly ironic sense of humor, a powerful moral vision and plangent insights into the classic theme of suffering and redemption.... Hellenga weaves the stands of his plot so adroitly that each surprising twist seems inevitable.... Hellenga's humane voice, his ability to illuminate the profundities in life in scenes of domestic relationships as well as those set on a larger stage, give this memorable novel powerful emotional appeal and literary stature.
From the Publisher
Rebecca Radner San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Irresistible....A compendium of delights, overflowing with insight and passion. The funny parts are absurdly hilarious, the painful ones moving and perceptive.

Frances Stead Sellers The Washington Post Book World Once in a while, when reality is too painful to bear, fiction can help us to explore the fragility of our human condition. The Fall of a Sparrow is such a book. With compassion and humor, it conveys a sense of certainty and ultimate faith that only the finest writing can achieve.

David Willis McCullough The New York Times Book Review Hellenga has a gift for nicely pointed satire and a rich, almost lavish sense of place.

Entertainment Weekly Autumnal prose, a playful intellectual curiosity, and a decent, disillusioned, all-embracing tenderness.

Carol Field San Jose Mercury News There are so many fascinating stories in this astonishing book, so many characters who touch the heart, that here's my advice: Give in to the irresistible urge to keep turning the pages the first time you read The Fall of a Sparrow. Then read it again.

Frances Stead Stellers The Washington Post The Fall of a Sparrow conveys a sense of certainty and ultimate truth that only the finest writing can achieve. It is an extraordinary novel.

Los Angeles Times The highest possible praise for a novel may be that it forced you to engage it, to argue, to confront it as you would a challenging but sometimes misguided lover. Robert Hellenga's The Fall of a Sparrow is such a novel.

The Boston Sunday Globe Sprawling, complex, and multifaceted...stimulating and inspiring....This is unapologetically a novel of ideas.

Jane Hamilton author of The Book of Ruth Here's the new Robert Hellenga novel, as richly detailed and absorbing as The Sixteen Pleasures. You know what you need to do: Boil the tea water, get into bed, tell your dear family to go away for a few days, and begin the journey.

Kathleen Jacobs Redbook A richly layered novel...in spite of the novel's seriousness and its keenly felt observations about loss and mourning, there are also wonderful moments filled with humor and charm.

L.S. Klepp
. . .[A]s a detailed portrait of an aging, questing man on the far side of the '60s generation, the novel can't avoid a certain smugness. . . .there's more to it than that: autumnal prose, a playful intellectual curiosity, and a decent, disillusioned, all-embracing tenderness.
Entertainment Weekly
Library Journal
Woody Woodhull, a middle-aged professor of Latin and Greek at a small Illinois college, struggles to rebuild his family, devastated by a deadly terrorist attack in Bologna, Italy, in 1980 that killed Woody's eldest daughter and 85 others. Woody's wife breaks down, regroups, and becomes a nun. His two surviving daughters grow to precocious womanhood. As Woody heads toward a new life, matter-of-factly accepting the consequences of an affair with one of his students, he is determined to see justice done for the lost child for whom he never stops grieving.

In Italy, finally, he seeks release from his exhausting rage when the terrorists are brought to a court of law. Hellenga has written a masterly follow-up to his widely acclaimed The Sixteen Pleasures LJ 4/1/94 that is steeped in the sophistication of 1980s Italy and the rich atmosphere of academia, where the multilingual characters effortlessly slip in and out of several languages as they quote from the classics in their day-to-day conversations. A perfect choice for book clubs.
--Beth E. Andersen
Library Journal
Woody Woodhull, a middle-aged professor of Latin and Greek at a small Illinois college, struggles to rebuild his family, devastated by a deadly terrorist attack in Bologna, Italy, in 1980 that killed Woody's eldest daughter and 85 others. Woody's wife breaks down, regroups, and becomes a nun. His two surviving daughters grow to precocious womanhood. As Woody heads toward a new life, matter-of-factly accepting the consequences of an affair with one of his students, he is determined to see justice done for the lost child for whom he never stops grieving.

In Italy, finally, he seeks release from his exhausting rage when the terrorists are brought to a court of law. Hellenga has written a masterly follow-up to his widely acclaimed The Sixteen Pleasures (LJ 4/1/94) that is steeped in the sophistication of 1980s Italy and the rich atmosphere of academia, where the multilingual characters effortlessly slip in and out of several languages as they quote from the classics in their day-to-day conversations. A perfect choice for book clubs.
--Beth E. Andersen
L.S. Klepp
. . .[A]s a detailed portrait of an aging, questing man on the far side of the '60s generation, the novel can't avoid a certain smugness. . . .there's more to it than that: autumnal prose, a playful intellectual curiosity, and a decent, disillusioned, all-embracing tenderness. -- Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughly absorbing and deeply moving consideration of "the strength of love" matched against "the strength of death" dominates this wonderful second novel by the author of the widely acclaimed The Sixteen Pleasures (1994). Center stage is Alan "Woody" Woodhull, a middle-aged professor of classics at a small Illinois college, whose oldest daughter "Cookie," during a terrorist bombing of an Italian train station, is killed in 1980, a senseless loss that pulls the Woodhull family apart. Cookie's mother Hannah leaves her husband and enters a convent. Younger siblings Sara (who narrates part of the story) and Ludi go their separate ways. And Woody, an impressively well-rounded and endearingly decent human being, seeks consolation in the ancient writers he adores, in a passionate avocation as blues guitarist and singer, and in an ill-judged tryst with a beautiful Iranian student (whose mother had formerly been his mistress). Disgraced and suspended from teaching, Woody travels in 1987 to Bologna when the terrorists responsible for Cookie's death (as well as others) are brought to trial, and there he achieves both a vita nuova and a greater understanding of the forces that impel some people to become cold- hearted killers, others only well-meaning adulterers.

In this amazingly rich story, Woody Woodhull is shown in the context of his many "loves," is celebrated in generously developed scenes (many during holidays: ceremonies intended to bind people together), and is examined in superb extended conversations: Woody's Christmas visit from Hannah; a classroom discussion that makes you want to curl right up with The Odyssey; and, climactically, Woody's meetingswith the agonized father of convicted terrorist Angela Strappafelci; and then—the book's most risky and powerful scene with the unregenerate Angela herself in her jail cell. The primal power of family, and the limitations and blessings of the intellectual life, are unforgettably explored in a wrenching story that demonstrates precisely how "It's not the great stories that give meaning to the little ones; it's the other way around.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684850276
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 7/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 SCRIBNER
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 802,660
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 1.00 (h) x 7.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Hellenga received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and studied at Queen's University in Belfast and the University of North Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University. He is a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of the bestselling novel The Sixteen Pleasures.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Mountain of Lights
On Friday, August 15, 1980 — Assumption Day, the middle of the August holidays — a bomb exploded in the train station in Bologna, Italy, killing eighty-six people, including my sister Cookie, who was sitting in the second-class waiting room, about two meters from where the bomb went off, waiting for a train back to Rome.
The station has been repaired, of course, but part of it — part of the waiting room — was left the way it had been after the bombing. You can see the bomb crater, which is about the size of a bowling ball. I didn't see it myself till years later, but I often imagined it. Daddy had a picture, a poster, rolled up in a cardboard mailing tube at the back of his closet. On the wall above the crater a marble stone, a lapide, lists the names and ages of all the people who were killed. Cookie was twenty-two. She was on her way to study international law at the University of Bologna. We thought she was in Rome, staying with friends, but she'd gone up to Bologna for a couple of days to look for a place to live.
I was sixteen years old at the time, and Ludi was twelve.
The bomb went off at 10:25 in the morning. That's 4:25 in the morning in Illinois. We were all asleep.
Before breakfast that morning Ludi and I took our books and walked up to the cemetery to wait for trains, not knowing that Cookie was already dead, or close to it. Pretty soon the Illinois Zephyr came by from Quincy — it ran an hour later on Saturdays — and about half an hour after that we saw four freight trains coming together on the two sets of tracks that cross about halfway between our house and New Cameron. The Burlington tracks go over, of course, and the Santa Fe tracks go under, but it was exciting anyway, because for a while it looked as if all the trains were going to collide.
Our house was a quarter of a mile from the crossing, and at night, lying in bed, you could feel the house tremble when a train went by, and when the windows were open you could make out the different sounds of the different cars, boxcars and gondolas and flatbeds; and you could hear the whistles blowing as far away as Cass City, on the Spoon River, where Daddy used to go duck hunting with Peter Abbott from the Biology Department; and you could hear the engines switching in the hump yard in St. Clair, three miles away, and the loudspeakers blurting out instructions to the engineers. Overnight guests sometimes said they couldn't sleep; but the sounds had become such a part of our lives, like the sound of Daddy playing his guitar at night, that we didn't hear them till we went away, and then we couldn't get to sleep.
I don't remember what book I was reading, but Ludi was reading Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales. She couldn't get enough of those folktales, every one of which began with a king and three daughters. The two older daughters were always mean and ugly, but guess what? — the youngest was always beautiful and smart and wonderful. We read for about an hour and saw a few more trains, and when we went back down Mama and Daddy were up and around, but we still didn't know about Cookie. After supper Daddy was reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to Ludi and me. He used to say that he'd read The Lord of the Rings aloud three times, once for each of his three daughters; but that wasn't quite true, because he didn't finish it the third time, which was for Ludi. We were getting close to the end, though. Frodo and Sam had climbed up Mount Doom, followed by Gollum, and Frodo and Gollum were teetering on the edge of the crater when the phone rang. Ludi had been upset by the death of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit and Daddy'd promised her that no one really important dies in The Lord of the Rings. But things were not looking good for Frodo, and Ludi was nervous, and when the phone rang she started to cry "You promised."
It was Allison Mirsadiqi an old friend of Daddy's, calling from Rome to tell Daddy about the strage, which is Italian for massacre or slaughter. She was worried because Cookie had called on Friday morning to say she'd found an apartment and would be back that afternoon. Allison had spoken to an official at the city hall in Bologna. Cookie's name hadn't been on the list of dead or injured, but a lot of bodies hadn't been identified, and over two hundred people had been injured. Everything was in chaos.
Daddy was saying uh-huh, uh-huh on the phone in the upstairs hallway and shouting for Mama to get on the phone down in the kitchen, and Ludi was still crying "You promised." I'd heard the story before, of course, and I knew that Frodo wasn't going to fall into Mount Doom, and I kept telling Ludi that everything was going to be all right.
Daddy spent the rest of the evening on the phone, and the next morning, Saturday morning, he and Mama flew to Milan and didn't come back till the beginning of September — classes had already started at St. Clair College, where my grandmother had gone to school and where Daddy taught Latin and Greek — because Mama had some kind of breakdown and had to stay in the hospital in Italy.
I couldn't remember a time when the house hadn't been full of students and faculty on Friday nights, reading naughty poems aloud in Latin, or putting on Greek plays, or just singing and making lots of noise to celebrate the end of the week; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't made pizza on Saturday nights; I couldn't remember a time when Mama and Daddy hadn't made love on Sunday mornings, staying in bed till ten or eleven o'clock; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't told us a story and played his guitar for us every night, or a time when he hadn't been working on his book on the early Greek philosophers, which he was going to call The Cosmological Fragments.
But when they came back from Italy Mama needed to rest a lot, so we didn't have anyone over. In the evenings she stayed in her study and read her Bible and religious books that Father Davis from Corpus Christi gave her. She tried to get us to read them too: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Father Ronald Knox. On Sunday mornings we started going to mass at Corpus Christi. Mama sang in the choir and went to see Father Davis two or three times a week, and helped him organize a novena, a series of prayer meetings at our house every Friday night for nine weeks in a row. Ludi and I didn't have to get down on our knees and say our prayers out loud, though Mama said it would make our grandparents happy in heaven, and Cookie too; but we had to come into the living room and let Father Davis put his hands on our heads and bless us; and then we had to pass around the plates of cookies that the women took turns bringing. And Mama ordered a tombstone for Cookie that said La sua voluntade è nostra pace on it — His will is our peace. Daddy went to mass for a while, and he fixed supper for Father Davis once a week and drove him home if he'd had too much to drink; and he drank coffee with the people from Corpus and St. Pat's who came to the novena. But he wouldn't go along with the inscription for the tombstone. "It's a cliché, Hannah; it's the one line from the Paradiso that everybody knows because it's one of Matthew Arnold's touchstones."
"When something's a cliché there's usually a good reason for it."
Ludi and I, sitting at the top of the back stairway, could hear them in the kitchen, and I can remember how sick I felt, because I'd never heard them quarreling before, not like this.
"What kind of God would will a bomb to go off in a crowded railway station?"
"That's not what it says, Woody. Read the line. Please read it aloud to me."
But Daddy wouldn't read the line aloud, and pretty soon Mama stumbled up the back stairs, walking right past Ludi and me without seeing us.
In January Mama took a job at a Catholic girls' school run by an order of Ursuline nuns, in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. The Latin teacher had resigned. Mama found a little studio apartment in River Forest — cheaper than Oak Park — and took the Illinois Zephyr home on weekends, which worked out OK, but to get back to Chicago she had to take the 8:00 train on Sunday morning, so she had to stop singing in the choir. She made us promise to keep going to mass, but by Thanksgiving the novelty had worn off. Ludi was the first to drop out. She simply refused to go. Then Daddy stopped. He said he liked the idea, but that his body started twitching when he thought about going. So he drove me in to Corpus on Sunday mornings. He'd go to his office at the college to do a little work and then pick me up afterwards. Maybe I lasted a little longer than the others because I'd gone to bed with Aaron Gridley, Cookie's old boyfriend, while Mama and Daddy were in Italy, and I was afraid...I'm not sure what I was afraid of, but when I finally went to confession and told Father Davis that I'd committed the sin of unchastity, he asked me if I was truly sorry, and I said no, not really, and that was that. I don't think he heard me, or else he was thinking of something else. I didn't say my ten Hail Marys; I just walked out of the church and sat on the steps till Daddy drove up in his truck with the dogs in the back and we drove back to the farm. That's what we called home — "the farm."
It wasn't so simple, though, because I was sorry too. Not sorry that I'd done it, but sorry that I'd done it right after Cookie died, done it while Mama was in a hospital in Italy, thinking she was Mary Magdalene, sorry that Daddy and I couldn't go up to his study and have one of our grown-up talks about it, and about everything else too. But by the time I was ready to talk it was too late. Mama was already gone, and Daddy had already told Mr. Steckley at the Steckley Monument Company that he wouldn't pay for the stone unless they sanded off the inscription, which they did, even though the sanding cost more than the stone itself.
For years I've tried to imagine that time in my parents' lives, that month in Italy. I was hungry for facts, for details. I looked through a guidebook of Bologna that Daddy brought back and got a sense of the city — a circle, described by the old medieval wall, with spokes radiating out from the center. If I close my eyes I can see my parents in front of the bombed-out station.
Allison Mirsadiqi — Cookie had been staying with Allison — has driven up from Rome to meet them. Allison, the first grown-up who ever asked me to call her by her first name, was Daddy's girlfriend when she was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and later on she married an Iranian businessman she met on a train from Rome to Naples. She went to St. Clair as an undergraduate, and now she's an important trustee of the college.
I located everything on the map, which was sort of a cross between an aerial photo and a perspective drawing, as if you were looking down on the red roofs of the city. I located the Ospedale Maggiore, where Cookie died, and the morgue where they took her body for an autopsy, and the Policlinico Sant'Orsola, where Mama was hospitalized. I studied the map as if it held an explanation, but I never found what I was looking for.
Daddy always said that at the heart of everything — religions, countries, families — you'd find not doctrines or philosophical propositions but stories, that stories took you as close as you could get to the heart of things. As far as he was concerned, the greatest storyteller of all was Homer, and he was always threatening to read the Odyssey and the Iliad to us, but as far as we were concerned the greatest storyteller of all was Daddy himself, and we always wanted him to tell us stories, not read them out of a book. It wasn't till I was in high school and began to read grown-up books on my own that I realized what had happened. Daddy hadn't made up his stories at all; he'd stolen them. From Dickens and Jane Austen and from Homer too. And he'd changed them. In Daddy's versions my sisters and I were always in the stories. Three little girls. Sometimes one of us would be the main character, and sometimes we'd just be minor characters going along for the ride: in Polyphemus's cave with Odysseus; swimming down with Beowulf to the bottom of the mere where Grendel's mother lived; going into Humbaba's sacred forest with Gilgamesh and Enkidu; packed off to Salem House with David Copperfield in Mr. Barkis's cart; a few extra sisters in a Jane Austen family; in the belly of the whale with Jonah; hiding in the bushes at the sacrifice of Isaac. But even as minor characters we would usually play a crucial role: one of us would suggest the "nobody" trick to Odysseus, or tell Abraham to look in the bushes for the ram, or warn Elizabeth Bennet about Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time I didn't even recognize the name because I'd always heard Daddy pronounce it so that it rhymed with "crow." But when I read Combray in my French class at St. Clair I recognized Marcel, except that in Proust he was a little boy instead of a little girl, and he didn't have any sisters.
I reminded Daddy of Marcel as we were driving back from Grinnell College on Interstate 80. We'd taken Ludi down — or sideways if you look at a map — for her freshman orientation. That was at the end of August 1986, six years after the bombing. Daddy'd wanted to take Ludi and me out to dinner in Grinnell, which is a town of about a thousand people, plus the college, but Ludi just wanted us to go so she could be on her own, so we left early. Daddy said that at the heart of every family there's a story like Marcel's, and I knew that he was thinking about Cookie, and about that month in Bologna. I asked him whatever happened to Marcel, or Marcelle, as she was called in Daddy's version; but he didn't know. He'd tried to read Remembrance of Things Past three or four times, but he never got past Swann's Way.
Daddy was a man who cried easily, even before it became fashionable. "Well," he'd say, when he'd pulled himself together, "Beowulf cried when he said good-bye to Hrothgar, and Achilles cried when Patroclus died, and Sir Launcelot..." He had a whole list. And he could make us cry by singing "Danny Boy" or "Just Before the Battle, Mother" or "The Poor Lonesome Cowboy." When we took Argos, our German shepherd, to the vet to have him put down, I was on the edge of tears, but Daddy was so far over the edge it was embarrassing. He'd just had a hernia operation so Mama had to carry poor old Argos downstairs — he couldn't even stand up the last day — and hold him on her lap in the truck. Ludi and I rode in the back. I thought Daddy wasn't going to be able to drive, and in the vet's office I tried to pretend I didn't know him. But I never saw him cry after Cookie's death. I thought about that when we read Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" in my English Lit. class. Professor Arnold said that the last two lines were a blemish on an OK poem, a decline into sentimentality, and when she read them aloud they did sound a little silly. But Daddy said that the little bump in the rhythm at the beginning of the last line knocked out the sentimentality, and that anyone who read the lines aloud paying attention to the rhythm would feel their strength, and when he read it aloud, not really accenting any syllable between "thoughts" and "lie," I could hear what he meant:
To me the meanest flower that blows
Can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
When we got home from Grinnell after taking Ludi to school, I opened the pocket door that separates the living room from the dining room — Ludi had it closed to keep Laska, our other dog, out of the dining room, where she'd been working on one of her projects — and a bat fell out of the crack. There's a colony in the attic, and sometimes when it gets too hot they crawl back into the walls and get turned around. They follow the air currents to the opening in the pocket door. I can't stand them and got Daddy to nail a little strip of wood over the opening, but then you couldn't close the door. Ludi was an animal lover and didn't care one way or the other, though she wouldn't let Daddy kill them with his badminton racquet, so when she wanted to close the door she took down the strip of wood. The bat must have been taken by surprise when I pulled the door open, because it dropped straight down, almost to the floor, and then flew in a straight line right into the dining room closet, where it smashed into the wall. Daddy found it in a Waterford crystal tumbler. He dumped it in the sack of garbage under the sink and washed out the tumbler, but I never wanted to drink out of those tumblers again.
That was my last week at home too. I was going to Chicago to look for a job. Daddy and I had found an apartment for me in Hyde Park with three roommates, students at the University of Chicago, so I had a place to stay; but I was feeling like a failure. Scared of the future. After four years of college — I'd gone to St. Clair — I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a clue. No one had recruited me; I wasn't on a track that was leading anywhere; I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I was thinking about Daddy living all alone for the first time in almost thirty years. And Mama all alone too in her little room in her little studio apartment where the bed — two mattresses, one on top of the other — doubled as the couch. Nothing could convince me that she could be happy. Ludi was gone, and I knew now that I'd never be able to understand Cookie's death; it didn't make any more sense than the death of the bat, smashing into the wall. I was starting to think of it as a test, a test that we had failed. I don't mean that I thought that God was testing us, the way he tested Job. Just that it was a challenge, and that instead of rallying, or pulling together, or loving, each other more, we'd allowed ourselves to be pulled apart. We hadn't been strong enough. We'd had all the love in the world, and it hadn't been strong enough to hold us together. But that night after I'd gone to bed, Daddy came into my room and sat down on the edge of the bed the way he used to and told me a story the way he used to.
I closed my eyes and let the words wash over me, like the waves on the beach up in Grand Mere, Michigan, where we rented a cottage one summer.
"Once upon a time," Daddy began, "there were three little girls named Cordelia and Seremonda and Duva."
All our stories began this way, with three little girls in a village with a schoolhouse, and a churchyard, and the baker's great stone oven, and of course the great highways that bound together east and west, north and south. On our adventures we always set out on the north-south highway, north to the mountains or south to the sea. The east-west highway was more mysterious, more metaphysical, I suppose. If you went west you came to rolling, meadows and fertile valleys that led to the ancient city where the king held his court. The road was kept in good repair, and every now and then some of the villagers — either to seek their fortunes or to escape from sickness and trouble — would pack up their belongings and set out for the city, never to be seen again. But the highway that led to the east disappeared into a dense forest and was impassable.
I turned over and Daddy tickled my arm the way he used to do when I was a little girl. He used to say he needed an extra hand for the three of us. But now he needed only one hand, and soon he wouldn't need any.
There was a river on the eastern border, and the remains of the bridge that once spanned it. The villagers were afraid to go that far into the forest, and no one went any farther, not even the three little girls. There was a mountain in the east, too. You couldn't see it from the village itself, because of the forest, but you could see it from the churchyard, which was on a high hill. It was cold and white even in summer, and on holy days at night you could see little lights, like fireflies, where the top of the mountain should have been, just like the mysterious lights we could see up in the cemetery at night, except those turned out to be car headlights, high school kids parking along the edge of the moraine.
Daddy said he wasn't sure what they were. The schoolmastersaid they were only shooting stars in the sky beyond the mountain, but the priest said they were fairy lights dancing on the mountain itself The villagers were divided, but there was no way of settling the question because there was no longer any traffic on the eastern highway.
"No one ever ventured eastwards," Daddy said; "they never even thought of it." He paused. "Except," he went on, "no one ever ventured eastwards except the wandering minstrels and jongleurs who came out of the forest in the fall, dressed like wild animals, bound for the west."
When we were little we always used to interrupt with questions, but that night I was too tired and sad, so I just lay quiet.
Years ago, when Ludi was only a baby, we all took the train into Chicago to see Maurice Jenkins' popular one-man enactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Mr. Jenkins, who was a friend of Daddy's, hopped and skipped around like Danny Kaye and played a pear-shaped German lute. Cookie was the first to join in, even though she was almost fourteen, and then I couldn't resist the strange medieval music. We danced three times around the rows of folding chairs, and when we disappeared through a narrow curtain at the rear of the hall, it was Cookie who went back into the main room to explain to the audience that the other children had gone to live under the mountain and would not be coming back. I knew at the time that this was what Daddy was remembering, but it wasn't till years later that I realized that this was the story he had told Mama when she was in the hospital in Bologna on the night that Cookie died. It's just a story, I tell myself now. But it's a story within a story, one of the stories within the story of Cookie's death, which is itself a story within the story of our family, just as the story of our family is a story within the larger stories of the Woodhull clan (Daddy's family) and the Clifford clan (my mother's family), and of St. Clair College, and of the town of St. Clair, of Harrison County, of the state of Illinois, of the United States, of the Northern Hemisphere, of Christendom, of the world, and so on. Concentric rings of stories till you get to the story of the universe itself I used to think that the bigger stories explained the smaller ones, that the bigger rings gave meaning to the rings that they enclosed, but now I think it's the other way around, and that each story illuminates and gives meaning to the larger story of which it is apart, till you get to the farthest ring, the primum mobile, and even beyond, where the universe folds in upon itself and there's nothing left to illuminate, nothing left to give meaning to.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Hellenga

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Table of Contents

Contents
Part One
The Mountain of Lights
In Memoriam
Halloween
Sunday Morning
Christmas 1986
Power Suit
The Ring of Gyges
Commencement
House for Sale

Part Two
Christmas 1987
Testimony
Mr. Jelly Roll Baker
La Vita Nuova
Children of the Sun
Ergastolo
A Dark Cimmerian Land
My Love Is Carpet
In Another Country

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: The Mountain of Lights

On Friday, August 15, 1980 -- Assumption Day, the middle of the August holidays -- a bomb exploded in the train station in Bologna, Italy, killing eighty-six people, including my sister Cookie, who was sitting in the second-class waiting room, about two meters from where the bomb went off, waiting for a train back to Rome.

The station has been repaired, of course, but part of it -- part of the waiting room -- was left the way it had been after the bombing. You can see the bomb crater, which is about the size of a bowling ball. I didn't see it myself till years later, but I often imagined it. Daddy had a picture, a poster, rolled up in a cardboard mailing tube at the back of his closet. On the wall above the crater a marble stone, a lapide, lists the names and ages of all the people who were killed. Cookie was twenty-two. She was on her way to study international law at the University of Bologna. We thought she was in Rome, staying with friends, but she'd gone up to Bologna for a couple of days to look for a place to live.

I was sixteen years old at the time, and Ludi was twelve.

The bomb went off at 10:25 in the morning. That's 4:25 in the morning in Illinois. We were all asleep.

Before breakfast that morning Ludi and I took our books and walked up to the cemetery to wait for trains, not knowing that Cookie was already dead, or close to it. Pretty soon the Illinois Zephyr came by from Quincy -- it ran an hour later on Saturdays -- and about half an hour after that we saw four freight trains coming together on the two sets of tracks that cross about halfway between our house and New Cameron. The Burlington tracks go onish it the third time, which was for Ludi. We were getting close to the end, though. Frodo and Sam had climbed up Mount Doom, followed by Gollum, and Frodo and Gollum were teetering on the edge of the crater when the phone rang. Ludi had been upset by the death of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit and Daddy'd promised her that no one really important dies in The Lord of the Rings. But things were not looking good for Frodo, and Ludi was nervous, and when the phone rang she started to cry "You promised."

It was Allison Mirsadiqi an old friend of Daddy's, calling from Rome to tell Daddy about the strage, which is Italian for massacre or slaughter. She was worried because Cookie had called on Friday morning to say she'd found an apartment and would be back that afternoon. Allison had spoken to an official at the city hall in Bologna. Cookie's name hadn't been on the list of dead or injured, but a lot of bodies hadn't been identified, and over two hundred people had been injured. Everything was in chaos.

Daddy was saying uh-huh, uh-huh on the phone in the upstairs hallway and shouting for Mama to get on the phone down in the kitchen, and Ludi was still crying "You promised." I'd heard the story before, of course, and I knew that Frodo wasn't going to fall into Mount Doom, and I kept telling Ludi that everything was going to be all right.

Daddy spent the rest of the evening on the phone, and the next morning, Saturday morning, he and Mama flew to Milan and didn't come back till the beginning of September -- classes had already started at St. Clair College, where my grandmother had gone to school and where Daddy taught Latin and Greek -- because Mama had some kind of breakdown and had to stay in the hospital in Italy.

I couldn't remember a time when the house hadn't been full of students and faculty on Friday nights, reading naughty poems aloud in Latin, or putting on Greek plays, or just singing and making lots of noise to celebrate the end of the week; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't made pizza on Saturday nights; I couldn't remember a time when Mama and Daddy hadn't made love on Sunday mornings, staying in bed till ten or eleven o'clock; I couldn't remember a time when Daddy hadn't told us a story and played his guitar for us every night, or a time when he hadn't been working on his book on the early Greek philosophers, which he was going to call The Cosmological Fragments.

But when they came back from Italy Mama needed to rest a lot, so we didn't have anyone over. In the evenings she stayed in her study and read her Bible and religious books that Father Davis from Corpus Christi gave her. She tried to get us to read them too: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Father Ronald Knox. On Sunday mornings we started going to mass at Corpus Christi. Mama sang in the choir and went to see Father Davis two or three times a week, and helped him organize a novena, a series of prayer meetings at our house every Friday night for nine weeks in a row. Ludi and I didn't have to get down on our knees and say our prayers out loud, though Mama said it would make our grandparents happy in heaven, and Cookie too; but we had to come into the living room and let Father Davis put his hands on our heads and bless us; and then we had to pass around the plates of cookies that the women took turns bringing. And Mama ordered a tombstone for Cookie that said La sua voluntade è nostra pace on it -- His will is our peace. Daddy went to mass for a while, and he fixed supper for Father Davis once a week and drove him home if he'd had too much to drink; and he drank coffee with the people from Corpus and St. Pat's who came to the novena. But he wouldn't go along with the inscription for the tombstone. "It's a cliché, Hannah; it's the one line from the Paradiso that everybody knows because it's one of Matthew Arnold's touchstones."

"When something's a cliché there's usually a good reason for it."

Ludi and I, sitting at the top of the back stairway, could hear them in the kitchen, and I can remember how sick I felt, because I'd never heard them quarreling before, not like this.

"What kind of God would will a bomb to go off in a crowded railway station?"

"That's not what it says, Woody. Read the line. Please read it aloud to me."

But Daddy wouldn't read the line aloud, and pretty soon Mama stumbled up the back stairs, walking right past Ludi and me without seeing us.

In January Mama took a job at a Catholic girls' school run by an order of Ursuline nuns, in Oak Park, just outside of Chicago. The Latin teacher had resigned. Mama found a little studio apartment in River Forest -- cheaper than Oak Park -- and took the Illinois Zephyr home on weekends, which worked out OK, but to get back to Chicago she had to take the 8:00 train on Sunday morning, so she had to stop singing in the choir. She made us promise to keep going to mass, but by Thanksgiving the novelty had worn off. Ludi was the first to drop out. She simply refused to go. Then Daddy stopped. He said he liked the idea, but that his body started twitching when he thought about g oing. So he drove me in to Corpus on Sunday mornings. He'd go to his office at the college to do a little work and then pick me up afterwards. Maybe I lasted a little longer than the others because I'd gone to bed with Aaron Gridley, Cookie's old boyfriend, while Mama and Daddy were in Italy, and I was afraid...I'm not sure what I was afraid of, but when I finally went to confession and told Father Davis that I'd committed the sin of unchastity, he asked me if I was truly sorry, and I said no, not really, and that was that. I don't think he heard me, or else he was thinking of something else. I didn't say my ten Hail Marys; I just walked out of the church and sat on the steps till Daddy drove up in his truck with the dogs in the back and we drove back to the farm. That's what we called home -- "the farm."

It wasn't so simple, though, because I was sorry too. Not sorry that I'd done it, but sorry that I'd done it right after Cookie died, done it while Mama was in a hospital in Italy, thinking she was Mary Magdalene, sorry that Daddy and I couldn't go up to his study and have one of our grown-up talks about it, and about everything else too. But by the time I was ready to talk it was too late. Mama was already gone, and Daddy had already told Mr. Steckley at the Steckley Monument Company that he wouldn't pay for the stone unless they sanded off the inscription, which they did, even though the sanding cost more than the stone itself.

For years I've tried to imagine that time in my parents' lives, that month in Italy. I was hungry for facts, for details. I looked through a guidebook of Bologna that Daddy brought back and got a sense of the city -- a circle, described by the old medieval wall, with spokes radiating out from the center. If I close my eyes I can see my parents in front of the bombed-out station.

Allison Mirsadiqi -- Cookie had been staying with Allison -- has driven up from Rome to meet them. Allison, the first grown-up who ever asked me to call her by her first name, was Daddy's girlfriend when she was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and later on she married an Iranian businessman she met on a train from Rome to Naples. She went to St. Clair as an undergraduate, and now she's an important trustee of the college.

I located everything on the map, which was sort of a cross between an aerial photo and a perspective drawing, as if you were looking down on the red roofs of the city. I located the Ospedale Maggiore, where Cookie died, and the morgue where they took her body for an autopsy, and the Policlinico Sant'Orsola, where Mama was hospitalized. I studied the map as if it held an explanation, but I never found what I was looking for.

Daddy always said that at the heart of everything -- religions, countries, families -- you'd find not doctrines or philosophical propositions but stories, that stories took you as close as you could get to the heart of things. As far as he was concerned, the greatest storyteller of all was Homer, and he was always threatening to read the Odyssey and the Iliad to us, but as far as we were concerned the greatest storyteller of all was Daddy himself, and we always wanted him to tell us stories, not read them out of a book. It wasn't till I was in high school and began to read grown-up books on my own that I realized what had happened. Daddy hadn't made up his stories a t all; he'd stolen them. From Dickens and Jane Austen and from Homer too. And he'd changed them. In Daddy's versions my sisters and I were always in the stories. Three little girls. Sometimes one of us would be the main character, and sometimes we'd just be minor characters going along for the ride: in Polyphemus's cave with Odysseus; swimming down with Beowulf to the bottom of the mere where Grendel's mother lived; going into Humbaba's sacred forest with Gilgamesh and Enkidu; packed off to Salem House with David Copperfield in Mr. Barkis's cart; a few extra sisters in a Jane Austen family; in the belly of the whale with Jonah; hiding in the bushes at the sacrifice of Isaac. But even as minor characters we would usually play a crucial role: one of us would suggest the "nobody" trick to Odysseus, or tell Abraham to look in the bushes for the ram, or warn Elizabeth Bennet about Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time I didn't even recognize the name because I'd always heard Daddy pronounce it so that it rhymed with "crow." But when I read Combray in my French class at St. Clair I recognized Marcel, except that in Proust he was a little boy instead of a little girl, and he didn't have any sisters.

I reminded Daddy of Marcel as we were driving back from Grinnell College on Interstate 80. We'd taken Ludi down -- or sideways if you look at a map -- for her freshman orientation. That was at the end of August 1986, six years after the bombing. Daddy'd wanted to take Ludi and me out to dinner in Grinnell, which is a town of about a thousand people, plus the college, but Ludi just wanted us to go so she could be on her own, so we left early. Daddy said that at the heart of every family there's a story like Marcel's, and I knew that he was thinking about Cookie, and about that month in Bologna. I asked him whatever happened to Marcel, or Marcelle, as she was called in Daddy's version; but he didn't know. He'd tried to read Remembrance of Things Past three or four times, but he never got past Swann's Way.

Daddy was a man who cried easily, even before it became fashionable. "Well," he'd say, when he'd pulled himself together, "Beowulf cried when he said good-bye to Hrothgar, and Achilles cried when Patroclus died, and Sir Launcelot..." He had a whole list. And he could make us cry by singing "Danny Boy" or "Just Before the Battle, Mother" or "The Poor Lonesome Cowboy." When we took Argos, our German shepherd, to the vet to have him put down, I was on the edge of tears, but Daddy was so far over the edge it was embarrassing. He'd just had a hernia operation so Mama had to carry poor old Argos downstairs -- he couldn't even stand up the last day -- and hold him on her lap in the truck. Ludi and I rode in the back. I thought Daddy wasn't going to be able to drive, and in the vet's office I tried to pretend I didn't know him. But I never saw him cry after Cookie's death. I thought about that when we read Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" in my English Lit. class. Professor Arnold said that the last two lines were a blemish on an OK poem, a decline into sentimentality, and when she read them aloud they did sound a little silly. But Daddy said that the little bump in the rhythm at the beginning of the last line knocked out the sentimentality, and that anyone who read the lines aloud paying attention to the rhythm would feel th eir strength, and when he read it aloud, not really accenting any syllable between "thoughts" and "lie," I could hear what he meant:

To me the meanest flower that blows

Can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

When we got home from Grinnell after taking Ludi to school, I opened the pocket door that separates the living room from the dining room -- Ludi had it closed to keep Laska, our other dog, out of the dining room, where she'd been working on one of her projects -- and a bat fell out of the crack. There's a colony in the attic, and sometimes when it gets too hot they crawl back into the walls and get turned around. They follow the air currents to the opening in the pocket door. I can't stand them and got Daddy to nail a little strip of wood over the opening, but then you couldn't close the door. Ludi was an animal lover and didn't care one way or the other, though she wouldn't let Daddy kill them with his badminton racquet, so when she wanted to close the door she took down the strip of wood. The bat must have been taken by surprise when I pulled the door open, because it dropped straight down, almost to the floor, and then flew in a straight line right into the dining room closet, where it smashed into the wall. Daddy found it in a Waterford crystal tumbler. He dumped it in the sack of garbage under the sink and washed out the tumbler, but I never wanted to drink out of those tumblers again.

That was my last week at home too. I was going to Chicago to look for a job. Daddy and I had found an apartment for me in Hyde Park with three roommates, students at the University of Chicago, so I had a place to stay; but I was feeling like a failure. Scared of the futu re. After four years of college -- I'd gone to St. Clair -- I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a clue. No one had recruited me; I wasn't on a track that was leading anywhere; I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I was thinking about Daddy living all alone for the first time in almost thirty years. And Mama all alone too in her little room in her little studio apartment where the bed -- two mattresses, one on top of the other -- doubled as the couch. Nothing could convince me that she could be happy. Ludi was gone, and I knew now that I'd never be able to understand Cookie's death; it didn't make any more sense than the death of the bat, smashing into the wall. I was starting to think of it as a test, a test that we had failed. I don't mean that I thought that God was testing us, the way he tested Job. Just that it was a challenge, and that instead of rallying, or pulling together, or loving, each other more, we'd allowed ourselves to be pulled apart. We hadn't been strong enough. We'd had all the love in the world, and it hadn't been strong enough to hold us together. But that night after I'd gone to bed, Daddy came into my room and sat down on the edge of the bed the way he used to and told me a story the way he used to.

I closed my eyes and let the words wash over me, like the waves on the beach up in Grand Mere, Michigan, where we rented a cottage one summer.

"Once upon a time," Daddy began, "there were three little girls named Cordelia and Seremonda and Duva."

All our stories began this way, with three little girls in a village with a schoolhouse, and a churchyard, and the baker's great stone oven, and of course the great highways that bound together east and west, north and south. On our adventures we always set out on the north-south highway, north to the mountains or south to the sea. The east-west highway was more mysterious, more metaphysical, I suppose. If you went west you came to rolling, meadows and fertile valleys that led to the ancient city where the king held his court. The road was kept in good repair, and every now and then some of the villagers -- either to seek their fortunes or to escape from sickness and trouble -- would pack up their belongings and set out for the city, never to be seen again. But the highway that led to the east disappeared into a dense forest and was impassable.

I turned over and Daddy tickled my arm the way he used to do when I was a little girl. He used to say he needed an extra hand for the three of us. But now he needed only one hand, and soon he wouldn't need any.

There was a river on the eastern border, and the remains of the bridge that once spanned it. The villagers were afraid to go that far into the forest, and no one went any farther, not even the three little girls. There was a mountain in the east, too. You couldn't see it from the village itself, because of the forest, but you could see it from the churchyard, which was on a high hill. It was cold and white even in summer, and on holy days at night you could see little lights, like fireflies, where the top of the mountain should have been, just like the mysterious lights we could see up in the cemetery at night, except those turned out to be car headlights, high school kids parking along the edge of the moraine.

Daddy said he wasn't sure what they were. The schoolmastersaid they were only shooting stars in the sky beyond the mountain, but the priest s aid they were fairy lights dancing on the mountain itself The villagers were divided, but there was no way of settling the question because there was no longer any traffic on the eastern highway.

"No one ever ventured eastwards," Daddy said; "they never even thought of it." He paused. "Except," he went on, "no one ever ventured eastwards except the wandering minstrels and jongleurs who came out of the forest in the fall, dressed like wild animals, bound for the west."

When we were little we always used to interrupt with questions, but that night I was too tired and sad, so I just lay quiet.

Years ago, when Ludi was only a baby, we all took the train into Chicago to see Maurice Jenkins' popular one-man enactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Mr. Jenkins, who was a friend of Daddy's, hopped and skipped around like Danny Kaye and played a pear-shaped German lute. Cookie was the first to join in, even though she was almost fourteen, and then I couldn't resist the strange medieval music. We danced three times around the rows of folding chairs, and when we disappeared through a narrow curtain at the rear of the hall, it was Cookie who went back into the main room to explain to the audience that the other children had gone to live under the mountain and would not be coming back. I knew at the time that this was what Daddy was remembering, but it wasn't till years later that I realized that this was the story he had told Mama when she was in the hospital in Bologna on the night that Cookie died. It's just a story, I tell myself now. But it's a story within a story, one of the stories within the story of Cookie's death, which is itself a story w ithin the story of our family, just as the story of our family is a story within the larger stories of the Woodhull clan (Daddy's family) and the Clifford clan (my mother's family), and of St. Clair College, and of the town of St. Clair, of Harrison County, of the state of Illinois, of the United States, of the Northern Hemisphere, of Christendom, of the world, and so on. Concentric rings of stories till you get to the story of the universe itself I used to think that the bigger stories explained the smaller ones, that the bigger rings gave meaning to the rings that they enclosed, but now I think it's the other way around, and that each story illuminates and gives meaning to the larger story of which it is apart, till you get to the farthest ring, the primum mobile, and even beyond, where the universe folds in upon itself and there's nothing left to illuminate, nothing left to give meaning to.

Copyright © 1998 by Robert Hellenga

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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Points

  1. One of the most significant changes in Woody is his transformation from a routine-oriented man who avoids change into a political activist whose primary purpose is to bring about change. Compare this transformation with that of Hannah. Discuss how two people who appear to have similar goals and values can choose such radically different paths after being touched by tragedy.
  2. In addition to the world of Homer and other ancient writers, Woody deeply connects with the emotional lyrics found in blues music. What do these two markedly different art forms have in common? Discuss why Woody is so fascinated with each one. Can the blues offer him something that the classics cannot, and vice versa?
  3. At virtually every important moment in his life, Woody discusses ancient history and classic literature. Is he looking for history to shed light on these events, to somehow guide him? Is he attempting to divert attention away from the situation at hand? Does he discuss academia because it is one of the few subjects he feels secure about?
  4. In one way, Woody's renewed interest in playing the guitar symbolizes the beginning of a new chapter in his life. But one of the main reasons that this music gives him comfort is because it reminds him of the past. Is Woody truly moving on? Discuss other events that mark new phases in Woody's life.
  5. Why does Woody admit only to Turi that he is afraid of the bats in his attic? Explore the possible meanings of the scene where Turi helps Woody hold the bat in his hands before letting it fly away. Why does Sara choose bats as the subject of her veryfirst independent exhibit at the science museum when she has been afraid of them all her life? Is Sara beginning to conquer her own fears?
  6. Is Woody selfish or hypocritical for having air affair with Turi? Did the affair begin simply because Turi was so aggressive, or was there a more tangible connection between Woody's affairs with a mother and a daughter? How do you feel about the fact that everyone (Hannah, Allison, Alireza) forgives Woody for having affairs with both women? Does he deserve their forgiveness?
  7. When discussing the play Oedipus with Allison, Woody is fascinated with the notion of the "terror of coincidence." Explore the role of coincidence and fate in The Fall of a Sparrow. Is Woody truly "terrorized" by coincidence, the fact that everything in life can't be planned or reasoned out?
  8. Early in the novel, Woody reflects on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. He points out how Ivan only transcends his average existence when he faces death. How does this notion mirror the events of Woody's life? Does he identify with Ivan? In the end, has the death of Cookie empowered him to change his life in positive ways?
  9. Why do food and cooking play such large roles in the life of the Woodhull family? Is Woody trying to use food to "nourish" his soul because he is not being fulfilled in other ways? Discuss the role of food as a character in itself.
  10. Discuss the point-of-view changes in The Fall of a Sparrow. Which point of view did you find more revealing? Why is Sara's narrative first-person, while the sections devoted to Woody are not? Did you ever wish to hear a first-person narrative from someone else, perhaps from Cookie or Hannah?
  11. Woody's moment of truth occurs when he forgives Angela Strappafelci. This scene is mirrored by the one where Alireza holds Woody's life in his hands (in the helicopter) but ultimately forgives him for having affairs with both his wife and daughter. Discuss the emotional growth of these two men. Do they have more in common than they realize?
  12. As a native, Gabriella can teach Woody new things about Italy, and Woody is now willing to play the part of the student rather than the teacher. Discuss the meaning of this momentous step. Does Woody's acceptance of this new role reflect his feelings for Gabriella, or is he simply ready to let someone else lead the way?
  13. Were the arguments between Hannah and Woody regarding Cookie's tombstone really a joint denial of their daughter's death? Discuss the meaning and suitability of the final inscription.
  14. Do you agree with Sara's assessment at the end of the novel that it is actually she, not Woody, who has failed to truly deal with Cookie's death? Or did Sara and Woody simply deal with the tragedy differently? Do you think Sara really understands the path that Woody chooses in the end, or does she simply accept it?
  15. The title of this book comes from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." What does this line mean in relation to the novel? Is Woody himself a Hamlet-esque figure, one whose indecisiveness and passivity routinely dictate the course of his life? Is this a character flaw he changes by the end of the novel?
  16. One of Robert Hellenga's strengths as a writer is his ability to wholly transport readers to a distant land and culture. Did reading The Fall of a Sparrow make you want to explore Italy?

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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, June 29th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Robert Hellenga to discuss THE FALL OF A SPARROW.


Moderator: Thank you, Robert Hellenga, for taking time out of your busy tour schedule to join us this evening to discuss your new book, THE FALL OF A SPARROW. How many cities are you visiting for this book tour?

Robert Hellenga: Gosh, I haven't counted, but about 15.


Monica from St. Charles: I read SIXTEEN PLEASURES and loved it. Thank you! How would you describe your new book? Is it similar at all to your last?

Robert Hellenga: There are quite a few similarities. I started out writing from the third person, and it is a person who goes to Italy because there is a big disaster there. And then when I was working on the book in Bologna, I felt the need for a female voice. So I decided to add Sara's voice. I guess I like writing from the point of view of a young woman. THE FALL OF A SPARROW is a lot more ambitious. I think I'd better not write another book about Italy. But I really want to go to Rome.


Berry H. from Williamsburg: In both of your books, I liked your choice of looking at the world through the eyes of a young woman who is a recent college graduate poised to enter the adult world. Did this focus have anything to do with being a father to daughters and teacher to young women? Have you thought of writing through the eyes of a young man?

Robert Hellenga: I think you are right. I have three daughters, and so I am just kind of accustomed to looking at the world through their eyes. I have another answer to this question. I also think it is an exciting time to be a young woman, and there is a need for young-women's stories. You kind of know how stories of young men will turn out. For example, in the SIXTEEN PLEASURES and in this book, I wanted the reader to think the young girls are just married off. I didn't want that to be a sign that everything is okay. But both establish themselves through careers.


Christine from St. Louis: Do you see a feminist or antifeminist tilt to this book? In the chapter called "Testimony," you have Woody ponder the male nude. He thinks that "women are less fully integrated into society. They stand with one foot outside of society and are therefore less embarrassed, less encumbered." What did you mean by this?

Robert Hellenga: Well, that is actually what someone says from the magazine. Woody doesn't necessarily voice that view, and I don't think he takes a stand for that. The magazine was thinking, women are closer to nature -- breast-feeding, giving birth. Woody is just thinking about how he stands on these issues.


Jill from Beverly Hills, CA: Did you spend much time in Italy to research this book?

Robert Hellenga: Yes, in fact, I went to Bologna from January to March of 1995, and I took some Italian lessons. I can make friends, but I just can't understand some people. There is a political association of the families of the bombing, and they gave me a lot of help. The vice president took me to the morgue, for example, and introduced me to the prosecuting attorney. They took me to the hospital and I talked to the woman who was in the emergency room. Plus they have all the transcripts of the trials. They gave me tons of books. And I went to the Methodist Church in Italy that is what I was growing up -- I figured if I went there, someone would invite me home to dinner. And that is what happened -- but it was out to a drink. I met tons of people. Oh, and then I was invited back in the summer of 1996 to march in the demonstration with the victims. There was a big march from the main piazza to the railway station. A lot of speeches. Thousands of people. Then we had an astonishing dinner. At the dinner I sat next to the guy who was the representative of the bombing of the Uffizi.


Simon from Boston College: Is there a historical basis for this novel? Did a similar bombing occur in Italy?

Robert Hellenga: Absolutely, and there were 85 people killed. I make it 86 to include my fictional character. And I changed the date to August 15th. The trial was in 1986 as I had it in the book. There were convictions and appeals. And the character of Angela -- the woman convicted in [the bombing] -- she is out now and can work. And before the Oklahoma City bombing, this was the largest postwar tragedy like this. I was in Bologna when the Oklahoma City bombing happen. Imagine letting Terry Nichols out -- it just won't happen.


Elana from South Orange, NJ: When did you begin writing fiction?

Robert Hellenga: I published a story in 1973, so it must have been a little before then. There is a very active undergraduate writing program at Knox. I didn't go to a writing program. I thought everyone praises these students for writing stories. I thought, I should try that!


Jennifer from New York City: Did you draw any inspiration from the story of Job?

Robert Hellenga: No, I really didn't have that in mind. I did think of Woody in terms of Abraham though, leaving everything behind and going out into the wilderness. I used that in another novel that never got published. I can't remember which one. I took a bunch of stuff from it.


Sarah from Middlebury, VT: As a wife to a college professor, I felt at home with the academic world of Woody, the classics professor. Woody's struggle -- balancing the inner and outer man -- was very moving. It is really a crisis that many men and women both may face in their 50s. Thank you for your two fine and challenging books. I appreciate your respect for the reader who may have to reach a bit.

Robert Hellenga: Fantastic!


Heather from Buffalo: Do you teach a literature course or a creative writing course at Knox College? Do you think it's a good or bad thing to study creative writing as an undergraduate?

Robert Hellenga: I teach mostly literature. There is a big debate about whether you should be teaching creative writing. The one thing I have to say about it -- which isn't too creative -- is that in these classes you still treat literature as literature. What has happened in some colleges is a certain hostility toward literature...and people in English departments want to expose its "corrupt ideological assumptions." It is more in the writing classes that people read it as literature, for what it has to offer instead of other reasons.


Scott from Brooklyn, NY: I read the recent New York Times review of your book and was disgruntled. I just want to tell you that I disagree with the reviewer's statement that you are a great writer that may have been spoiled by grad school. I guess they are referring to all the erudite references you make to classics and literature. I found that to be one of the greatest strengths of the book. What do you think about their statement? Do you read your critical reviews?

Robert Hellenga: I am not going to pretend to be indifferent. I thought it was a little flip and nasty. I appreciate your support, Scott. Luckily there have been a lot of great reviews.


Michael from Madison, WI: You include three quotes in the front of the book in reference to the title THE FALL OF A SPARROW. Can you tell us why you included these and what special meaning they have to you? Did it occur to you to use them after you wrote the book?

Robert Hellenga: Yes, it occurred to me afterward. It was funny, because my original title was FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS, and then we had a big flap about the title. The publisher at Scribner didn't like it. Then we tried to come up with a new title. I was wandering around the public library and I stumbled upon it...I thought of all those sparrow references -- the line from HAMLET and the New Testament Hamlet is alluding to the New Testament, the idea of God the Father watching over the sparrows. And God, there are really lots of sparrow quotations -- I could have gone on and on. What they have in common is a sense of the mystery of life.


Dale from College of William and Mary: The references to Italian politics, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, classical mythology, and finally, Greek and Italian quotes is often a challenge to the reader. Had you considered including footnotes or an appendix?

Robert Hellenga: No, but I think that every foreign language phrase is translated. I hate it when I run into something and can't figure it out. I went to a lot of trouble to make it clear to the reader. There is one exception: the sign over Gabrielle's apartment, which is in ancient Italian. I think I might write an article about this. I studied Persian and Greek. Someone I knew helped me with the translations.


Leslie Brian from Chapel Hill: Do you see a feminist appeal to your novel? What were you trying to say with the character of the dean?

Robert Hellenga: I think that if you looked at Sara, you would see a pretty positive feminist appeal. I like the character of the dean, and I probably went overboard. I tell you -- amorous relations policies seem to be going too far. It rubbed me the wrong way. We had a wonderful woman here at Knox who wrote a book about sleeping with all her professors, and she was something else when she was here. I think that the dean represents the excess of certain things. My feelings about the dean are not negative but melancholy. She was on the verge of being an attractive character.


Theresa from St. Louis: I am almost finished with your novel and really have enjoyed it. The only problem I have is with Woody's affair with the young student. It seemed so immoral -- especially in the sense that Turi came on to him and he didn't resist. I can see how he may have had a one-night stand with her on a temptation basis, but I don't see it as realistic that he would have carried on with it without thinking of the repercussions. Also, wouldn't he have felt too paternal with her to be in a sexual relationship with her -- she being close in age to his daughters and the daughter of a friend?

Robert Hellenga: Wow! that is a good question. I don't know. Men continue to fantasize about young women, and it is like a fantasy coming true here. You see it quite a bit -- look at Justice Black, Saul Bellow, and Picasso. But you have a very good point. It guess the key point there is when Woody says, The hell with all the conventions. This is what I want and I will do it. And all the other stuff is bullshit. I am not sure if I am saying that this is okay, but I felt like it was pretty positive. I will tell you that I did worry about these things and that I had to struggle to get the age right, but I couldn't fit in all these things. I wanted him to be in the army but then he would have been too old. He couldn't be 40 -- it just wouldn't work. So I was concerned about those things.


Amy Burger from Ohio: I loved your first book, THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES. I hope to read your next one soon. Was writing your second novel easier than your first?

Robert Hellenga: No, I thought it was going to be, but it was just so much slugging away, trying to get it to come together. With the second one I knew I could get it published -- that helps. But basically, no, it wasn't any easier. I am working on another one, and that is even harder.


Reagan from Austin: If you don't mind spelling it out, What do you see as the main theme or idea of this book? Thanks for such an enjoyable read! I am recommending both of your books to all of my friends!

Robert Hellenga: I think that there is a search for some kind of transcendence that you are never going to get. For some larger meaning, you have to be satisfied with what he quotes to Sara: "Love and work" actually, he is quoting Freud. The main character can't go the way of his wife, joining a convent. The wife wants the tombstone to say it is part of God's will...but Woody comes up with something he can live with, the whole epitaph at the end of the book: "Against the strength of love you will find no herb. Against the strength of death, no herb grows in the garden." Sara wants to turn it around. You also see it in the memorial service. The minister wants to say that it is okay, she is in heaven -- but it isn't okay.


Paul Stevens from San Francisco: What inspired you to write this novel?

Robert Hellenga: In 1989 I went to Bologna with some Italian friends, and I saw the stone in the station with the list of 85 people who were killed in 1980, and I got to thinking, What if my daughter's name were one that list. Two of my daughters had gone to Italy and gone through that station.


Monica from Philadelphia: Are any elements of THE FALL OF A SPARROW autobiographical? I guess that you must play the blues guitar?

Robert Hellenga: Yes, that is true, I do play guitar. I have three daughters, just like King Lear. None of my daughters has been killed, but I got a lot of details from our family life. It is just so easy: We have two dogs. And I have lived in Italy and teach at a small college.


Melanie from Richmond: Central to this novel is the turmoil of grief and how one moves on and recovers from it. I found your depiction very moving and accurate. Did you read books about grief and the stages of healing to write this book? I hope this isn't too personal, but have you lost someone close to you?

Robert Hellenga: My parents are dead, but they were old. So no, I haven't lost a daughter or anything like that. And yes, I went to the library and checked some things on grief. I kind of made fun of them. You take this path or that. But when Woody goes to the memorial service, he checks some books out. At least they have some practical advice, unlike the philosophers.


Erin from Chicago: What kind of writing influences your writing?

Robert Hellenga: I will tell you a couple of books. It helps to read something I really like. Sue Miller's FAMILY PICTURES. I think that is a great book, and I took that book to Bologna with me because I wanted to study it. Two other modern books, by Gail Godwin: THE FINISHING SCHOOL and FATHER MELANCHOLY'S DAUGHTER. I go back to those all the time. One book I go back to, too, is Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA. Homer and Tolstoy -- high-toned!


Mary from New York, NY: Did you map the story out entirely before beginning, knowing which voice you'd be using as narrator, or did it just happen as you were writing?

Robert Hellenga: It just happened. I don't think you can plan too much. I think you have to surprise yourself.


Linda from Martha's Vineyard: I loved THE FALL OF A SPARROW! Especially memorable was the luncheon scene of Sara's meeting with her lover's wife, Sally. It was hilarious how you depicted it -- but also meaningful in its message of the powers of forgiveness. How do you see this episode connecting with the rest of the book's message?

Robert Hellenga: there are a lot of parallels between Sara's experiences and her father's. They both have a question of affairs. In both cases it leads to a deeper reconciliation of friendship. In the case of Woody, it is with Turi's father.


Richard from Chicago: You write down the lyrics to several blues passages and make references to the blues master Taj Mahal. Are these songs favorites of yours? Are you a fan of Taj's? I love his albums.

Robert Hellenga: Yes, they are favorites, and I am a fan of Taj Mahal. And I will tell you something: You have to pay for all the lyrics, and I didn't know that. That's why I don't include more. I had a Madonna quote, too, but couldn't use it.


George Vandervoort from Wilmette, IL: Did my cousin Knox Professor George Steckley have any influence on the book?

Robert Hellenga: Yes, I put his name in both books. He is the director of the Harvard place in THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES. In THE FALL OF A SPARROW he is in charge of the monument place where Woody and his wife pick a tombstone. Thanks! [laughs]


Melissa Church from Athens, GA: What are your future plans for writing? Any more novels set in Italy?

Robert Hellenga: I think I will do something other than an Italian novel. I am working on a novel about a blues singer, probably set mostly in Chicago. I don't want to say anything else about it. It will be a great story.


Leighton from San Francisco: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Robert Hellenga: I published quite a few stories. But the big turning point was when I got an Illinois arts grant for "The Mountain of Lights" in 1975 I used part of that in the first chapter of this book. That was a big step. I published quite a few stories before THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES, and getting a publisher for that book after 39 rejections felt good.


Ian from Pittsburgh, PA: Why did you introduce the voice of Sara? Also why did you put her voice in the first person and not Woody's?

Robert Hellenga: I made that decision when I was in Bologna studying Sue Miller's FAMILY PICTURES. There are lots of voices in that novel, but one of the voices gave an overview. I did it partly because I enjoyed writing from the point of view of a woman. Sara can step back and say, Here is how it was for our family. Woody was too close.


Emily from Washington, D.C.: I love to know how writers describe their craft. What is your approach to writing? Do you use outlines or character sketches, or do you just dive in?

Robert Hellenga: Well, I do both. I am a big outliner but also dive in. I believe you have to work things out in the act of writing, discover things while you are writing. That doesn't mean you don't have some kind of plan, though, and I was really influenced by an interview with William Staffer. He says that when he sits down to write, he thinks, What am I going to discover or find? Not how am I going to squeeze the stuff out. I think that is a very healthy attitude.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Robert Hellenga! Do you have any closing comments for our audience?

Robert Hellenga: I have enjoyed this very much. The only question that threw me is Woody's affair, and that remains problematic. But thanks!


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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Points

  1. One of the most significant changes in Woody is his transformation from a routine-oriented man who avoids change into a political activist whose primary purpose is to bring about change. Compare this transformation with that of Hannah. Discuss how two people who appear to have similar goals and values can choose such radically different paths after being touched by tragedy.
  2. In addition to the world of Homer and other ancient writers, Woody deeply connects with the emotional lyrics found in blues music. What do these two markedly different art forms have in common? Discuss why Woody is so fascinated with each one. Can the blues offer him something that the classics cannot, and vice versa?
  3. At virtually every important moment in his life, Woody discusses ancient history and classic literature. Is he looking for history to shed light on these events, to somehow guide him? Is he attempting to divert attention away from the situation at hand? Does he discuss academia because it is one of the few subjects he feels secure about?
  4. In one way, Woody's renewed interest in playing the guitar symbolizes the beginning of a new chapter in his life. But one of the main reasons that this music gives him comfort is because it reminds him of the past. Is Woody truly moving on? Discuss other events that mark new phases in Woody's life.
  5. Why does Woody admit only to Turi that he is afraid of the bats in his attic? Explore the possible meanings of the scene where Turi helps Woody hold the bat in his hands before letting it fly away. Why does Sara choose bats as the subject of her very first independent exhibit at the science museum when she has been afraid of them all her life? Is Sara beginning to conquer her own fears?
  6. Is Woody selfish or hypocritical for having air affair with Turi? Did the affair begin simply because Turi was so aggressive, or was there a more tangible connection between Woody's affairs with a mother and a daughter? How do you feel about the fact that everyone (Hannah, Allison, Alireza) forgives Woody for having affairs with both women? Does he deserve their forgiveness?
  7. When discussing the play Oedipus with Allison, Woody is fascinated with the notion of the "terror of coincidence." Explore the role of coincidence and fate in The Fall of a Sparrow. Is Woody truly "terrorized" by coincidence, the fact that everything in life can't be planned or reasoned out?
  8. Early in the novel, Woody reflects on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. He points out how Ivan only transcends his average existence when he faces death. How does this notion mirror the events of Woody's life? Does he identify with Ivan? In the end, has the death of Cookie empowered him to change his life in positive ways?
  9. Why do food and cooking play such large roles in the life of the Woodhull family? Is Woody trying to use food to "nourish" his soul because he is not being fulfilled in other ways? Discuss the role of food as a character in itself.
  10. Discuss the point-of-view changes in The Fall of a Sparrow. Which point of view did you find more revealing? Why is Sara's narrative first-person, while the sections devoted to Woody are not? Did you ever wish to hear a first-person narrative from someone else, perhaps from Cookie or Hannah?
  11. Woody's moment of truth occurs when he forgives Angela Strappafelci. This scene is mirrored by the one where Alireza holds Woody's life in his hands (in the helicopter) but ultimately forgives him for having affairs with both his wife and daughter. Discuss the emotional growth of these two men. Do they have more in common than they realize?
  12. As a native, Gabriella can teach Woody new things about Italy, and Woody is now willing to play the part of the student rather than the teacher. Discuss the meaning of this momentous step. Does Woody's acceptance of this new role reflect his feelings for Gabriella, or is he simply ready to let someone else lead the way?
  13. Were the arguments between Hannah and Woody regarding Cookie's tombstone really a joint denial of their daughter's death? Discuss the meaning and suitability of the final inscription.
  14. Do you agree with Sara's assessment at the end of the novel that it is actually she, not Woody, who has failed to truly deal with Cookie's death? Or did Sara and Woody simply deal with the tragedy differently? Do you think Sara really understands the path that Woody chooses in the end, or does she simply accept it?
  15. The title of this book comes from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." What does this line mean in relation to the novel? Is Woody himself a Hamlet-esque figure, one whose indecisiveness and passivity routinely dictate the course of his life? Is this a character flaw he changes by the end of the novel?
  16. One of Robert Hellenga's strengths as a writer is his ability to wholly transport readers to a distant land and culture. Did reading The Fall of a Sparrow make you want to explore Italy?
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