A review of Fifty Miles by Sheryl St Germain

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Fifty Miles
by Sheryl St Germain
Etruscan Press
Paperback: 200 pages, Jan 20, ISBN-13: 978-0999753446

50 Miles is a fascinating book about being a mother and about the joys and struggles, the pain and responsibilities that this role bring to women. It is also about trying to get the best out of that precious flesh that come from female’s bodies. Addiction and the associated demons play an important part in the narrative of 50 Miles. St Germain in the first few lines of the book says: “My son was born into a family cursed by substance abuse.”

The works in this book have been divided into four sections containing mainly of essays and some poems with one introduction in which the writer slowly introduces the readers to topics such addiction, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and the importance of the creative arts and crafts such as writing and crocheting in tragic moments.  “Writing is a key tool in healing,” and about crocheting “ I used the craft of crocheting to find peace and a sense of usefulness when things seemed hopeless,” the author says.  The story in this book is about the survival of a mother but it does not have a happy ending because unfortunately the main character, Gray, her son, did not survive.

Many of the pieces in the book are about the ways the author tried to maintain her sanity while her son slowly descended into the cruel scene of drug addiction. One of the saddest parts of the book is the beginning when a Principal at a local school decided to diagnose Gray with ADD and strongly recommended that he be put on Ritalin (methylphenidate) and a stimulant. The author fought with all her strength, she says:

I felt thrust into a world I didn’t understand, and for the first time in my life, I had no clue what the right path might be. It seemed to me , once taken, the path of drugs would be one from which it would be hard to turn back.”  St Germain gives a very informative background to the drug and its administration, as well as the use of corporal punishment in school something to which Gray was subjected to in excess.

The reader will find in this book beautiful passages, the words flow easily and descriptions are very vivid, talking about her mother the author wrote this lovely passage:

If you are mourning some loss, as my mother often would have been — not only did she lose her husband over the years to other women and drink, but both her younger sister, and her troubled son, my brother, died young of drug overdoses — the yarn slowly but surely binds you to that loss.  Maybe your stitches take on the shape of your grief, swelling as you eyes do, maybe you tighten them when angry or hold the tension a bit more loosely, when you are sad.  May be you’re thinking of someone you love who’s not lost but still alive, your focus to create something beautiful for him, to stitch your affection into the yarn.

The reality of being the mother of a ‘millennial’ is well portrayed in the pages of Fifty Miles.  In addition, the author herself was wrestling with alcohol addiction, something that she bravely conquered. In three poignant essays: “To Drink a Glacier”, “Call the Bagpipes” and “The Third Step” St Germain with very crisp writing ponders and talks about her battles with alcohol and her success with sobriety.

It is interesting to note the extensive research that the author has carried out in an attempt to find answers and understand addiction, she also has read numerous books, mentioned in Fifty Miles memoirs on addiction and recovery. Not only will the reader enjoy the very well crafted essays and poetry but also will find a considerable amount of information.

Some of the essays in the collection include stories about trips to different parts of the world, trips that the author did solo or with Gray. The environment and nature play an important of the writer’s life, this is evident in some of her essays.

“Parking Lot Nights” is an essay about travelling but also about role-play video games, an entertainment that helped the grieving mother to heal. The author says:

I’ve been a gamer much of my adult life, thanks to my son, and this essay traces my relationship with Gray through gaming, and offers some discussion about the ways in which video games might offer metaphors through which we can connect with each other in surprisingly profound ways.  The essay also looks at the ways in which gaming helped me both grieve and heal.

“Hiking in Wyoming, After a Death” is a long poem, very evocative, sad, beautifully constructed and written and with an excellent rhythm. I would have liked to read more of her poetry. The following is just an excerpt:

It’s these ancestral mountains, massive as grief,
that dominate, sharp, angular,
jutting out like fingers or hands.
Split, shattered, cracked,
they bare fracture after fracture
from the ancient wound that made them.

It’s summer, the sun fierce
as a new mother, but snow
still hugs the peaks,
defiant as a young child,
but refusing,
to let go.

I absolutely agree with the evaluation of Fifty Miles by the Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fenelly who said on the back-cover: “ In the era of Photoshop and Facebook, we never been more in need of an honest and vulnerable writer like Sheryl St Germain’s. With poet’s ear, a critic’s insight, and a mother’s fierceness, she investigates the life of her troubled son and her efforts to heal after his death. This is a necessary book for anyone who hopes to understand addiction, grief, healing, or the human heart.” Reading Fifty Miles brought me to tears a few times, but St Germain courage and determination inspired me and made me reflect as a mother. Fifty Miles is a book that won’t disappoint readers.

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The authors poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish), other books are A Call to the Star and Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria. Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.