• Courtesy Random House
  • Helen, Hilda, and Eugene Sehnert

Let’s begin with Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What Tolstoy did not say that would be helpful here is how to tell the difference.

In 2004, the Reader published in 12 weekly installments The Distancers, an account by Lee Sandlin of his mother’s family tree. I was, nominally, the editor of this saga, but although Sandlin thinks he recalls 1:30 AM screaming matches the day before publication, I don’t believe I did much more than bow to each page as I read it. Revised and expanded, The Distancers has just been brought out between covers by Vintage Books. The promotional copy I found on the Vintage website is mostly malarkey:

“Seven generations worth of joy and heartache . . . a whole history of quiet ambition and stoic pride . . . a sweeping American family epic . . . a beautiful and stark Midwestern drama, about a time and place long since vanished, where the author learned the value of family . . . “

If that encourages you to buy the book, more power to the copywriter. You won’t be sorry you did. We at the Reader are as proud of Lee Sandlin as we are of any writer whom we feel we can say we introduced. The Distancers is Sandlin’s third book from a commercial press since 2010, and the first that originated in our pages. But what he actually has to say about family is how strange it is. And from this strangeness came the author.

Sandlin’s story is rooted in the summers he passed as a child at his mother’s ancestral home in Edwardsville, Illinois. “My grandfather grew up there, and it’s where my mother spent her summers when she was a kid. By the time of my childhood it had been firmly established as a kind of private sleepaway camp for our family. . . . Our parents would . . . leave us for weeks or sometimes months at a time.” Why his parents would do that isn’t clear—except that Sandlin’s mother, Dorothy, was treated the same way by her parents, Clarence and Mary Sehnart, who drove them down from Chicago as soon as school let out. “Clarence and Mary were usually so restless to get back on the road,” Sandlin writes, “they wouldn’t even stick around for dinner. Today, asked where her parents went, Dorothy expels a long, slow sigh and says, ‘I have absolutely no idea.'”

What Dorothy knew was that her parents cared only for each other. Sandlin writes, “Dorothy says that all her life when she thought about a warm and loving family, what she pictured was the house in Edwardsville.”

That house, Sandlin writes, “was an ideal setting for childhood adventures.” As for the house’s four occupants, they were “all around sixty when I first stayed with them,” Sandlin tells us, and “their laughter bubbled out of them in a ceaseless froth . . . Hilda’s bright trill, Helen’s wheezy, half-smothered chortle, Marty’s haw-haw bray, and Eugene’s rare, long snort like a stone dropped in a well. It was a kind of laughter that radiated well-being, acceptance, faith.”

Being around Hilda, a relative would recall, harking back to the time when Dorothy visited as a girl, “was like drowning in love.” Back then it was Hilda and her sister Helen and their mother, Agnes, in the house, and the visiting kids felt even closer to Helen, who “was much more relaxed around them than she was around adults,” who “lost all her shyness and joined in all her games,” and when she won let a “sly, crafty grin” cross her face, “as though nobody could know how deep her pleasure ran.”

So what is The Distancers—a tribute to the kin who brought the love that made the author bloom? Not exactly. At some point Sandlin—who’s indicated he’s crosswise with most of his family on this one—began to wonder, who are these people? He realized he knew nothing about the four of them, not even how they were related, and that this was how they wanted it. Their lives were no one’s business, certainly not his. They lived to be unknowable, as if perhaps they had so little self-regard they felt there was too little of themselves to share. Sandlin’s inquiries led him to conclude that actual happiness hadn’t been in the picture. Helen was a spinster dying on the vine; Hilda endured—because that is woman’s lot—a loveless, childless marriage to Marty, a deadbeat Helen silently abhorred since the time he’d tried to kiss her. As for Eugene, always preternaturally quiet, he was so traumatized by whatever happened to him during the war in the Pacific he was almost incapable of any speech at all and spent his days puttering in the lavish gardens he’d installed out back. What’s more, Eugene’s contempt for Marty was so overwhelming he finally punched him in the face and for the rest of his life refused to acknowledge his existence.

Also, Sandlin at some point in his growing up noticed there wasn’t a book in the house.

“Edwardsville was the first place where I understood what manners were for . . . ” he tells us. “They allowed people who may not have even liked one another much to get along effortlessly in the closest quarters.” Which apparently was necessary because each, in his or her own way, was too maimed to leave. Sandlin concluded that the four of them didn’t actually like the kids either, the same kids who looked back and remembered those summers as some of the best times of their lives.

The Distancers begins midway through the 19th century with Peter Sehnert, Sandlin’s great-great-great grandfather, who came over from Germany, took the train west until the tracks stopped at the Mississippi, and settled: “He took no interest whatsoever in the outside world. He was not known to spread gossip or listen to rumors or read newspapers or pass the time of day with anyone. Whole days went by without his saying a word to his wife and children.” From this patriarch Sandlin leads us forward in time, yet his later ancestors, though they can be described with increasing detail, don’t become markedly more understandable. I think Sandlin must have decided that understanding is impossible; and because sentimentalizing is a wretched substitute, he doesn’t attempt that either. He doesn’t even try to reconcile the evidence that the Edwardsville house was full of love with the evidence it was full of loneliness, anger, and desperation. I could insist it was necessary he at least try, but I don’t actually believe this. As I read I was inevitably thinking of my own family and the ancestral house we spent our summers at, and of how contradictory my grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins became once I stopped thinking of them as the two-dimensional figures that had peopled my childhood. All families are strange—though I wouldn’t put up a fight if Sandlin replied, but some are stranger.

Out of his cast of characters, how did someone as subtle and inquisitive as Lee Sandlin emerge? That’s the interesting question he doesn’t pursue but the reader is likely to be asking, and possible clues are scattered about the way they are at a crime scene. There’s his grandmother Mary, a mean cuss but someone who actually read books and late in life became an adept painter; his great grandfather who built the house in Edwardsville, John Sebastian Sehnert, or “Bosh”: “an idler, a woolgatherer, indifferent to authority, dreamily impervious to punishment, unintimidated by anybody else’s opinions. . . . He had a lifelong love of bosh, of nonsense and irrelevant fantasy”; and even Eugene, who late in life finally began to talk about his war and then would not shut up. As for Sandlin’s father, about all we’re told is that he was an air force cadet Dorothy met at a dance in Arizona; but although he doesn’t figure in his son’s story he surely figured in his character.

Families are only either happy or unhappy when they’re not yours.