Book Review: Shaking Out the Dead

(Kate Cholewa, The Story Plant, 2014)

By AARON PARRETT

Kate Cholewa’s Shaking Out the Dead drew me in by way of its unusual characters living quirky, challenging lives.

Geneva, 62 and given to meditative reverie and cunning insight into other people’s emotional anguish, happens to have a husband suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s at a local nursing home.

Tatum, a 30-something woman scarred by failed relationships and her sister’s scorn, can’t bring herself to trust love, even though she’s courted by the sincere and sensitive Paris—a waiter and cook at a café catering to the disadvantaged and destitute.

The novel is set in Helena, Mont., though many scenes feel as if they take place in the more run-down sections of Missoula or Billings, where people share apartments above restaurants and coffee shops, and where young people freely mingle with seniors both at work and home.

Whereas almost every standard Montana novel focuses on rural life and the isolation for which the state is known, Cholewa builds a believable world set in one of Montana’s modest urban centers, replete with gritty and sometimes sordid reality: a hint of prostitution, occasional violence, and the mundane reality of things like traffic and urban sprawl.

The heart of this novel, however, is a child named Rachael, 9 years old, whose mother dies of cancer.

Because her father is unable to cope with the loss of his wife and its devastating effect on his daughter, he sends Rachael back to Montana with his sister-in-law, Tatum, after the funeral. Because Tatum lives with Geneva, we see the world through the eyes of three very different generations of girls and women, and we’re given perspective on the interesting ways in which they share life lessons.

Shaking Out the Dead is both a love story (the tortured romance that unfolds between Tatum and Paris satisfies the itch we all have as readers to know what happens when unrequited love eventually becomes requited) and a story about the finality of death and how we cope with loss.

Along the way, Cholewa presents the interior workings of these characters’ hearts and minds with a psychological high-fidelity that reminds me of the best novelists of that approach—Henry James, Edith Wharton, or even James T. Farrell.

Throughout the narrative, the author peppers the introspective mediations of each of her characters with subtle but compelling philosophical insights.

As Geneva looks at her wedding ring, for example, while agonizing over her feelings about her marriage, she pinpoints the transcendent power of symbols: “Geneva was wary of investing inanimate objects with power—not because she thought the power was imagined, but because she knew it came to be real. She didn’t want to have to assess, every day, whether or not she had it in her to bear the symbol’s weight.”

More than anything else, what makes this novel so eminently readable is the convincing dialogue: no mean feat when the subject matter is so intense.

Whether it’s the fragile psyche of a young woman averse to romance, or a late middle-aged woman wrestling with what the commitment part of marriage counts for when her husband has slipped into the late stages of senility, or the broken heart of an artist unable to win the woman he loves—the author gives them lines that surprise us with how insightful they are while sounding so natural in the mouths of this collection of people she has made us care about.

At the same time, Cholewa presents some heavy emotional scenes with caring finesse, turning the reality of living with mastectomy scars or sexual complications of Alzheimer’s into plot points that actually engage the reader and make you think about how messy and difficult every ordinary life really is.

Ultimately, Shaking Out the Dead is a love story, but a love story not limited to the vagaries of romance and heartbreak. There’s plenty of both here, but this is a Love story with a Capital L.

It’s an exploration of the kind of agape love that human beings are capable of feeling—even unconditionally—for the people (including family) who drop into our lives, with whom we connect in ways that cut much deeper than eros in the end.

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