Young Widower: A Memoir
by John W. Evans (Bangladesh 1999–2001)
Winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize
University of Nebraska Press
$19.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
John Evans has written an unusual and superb memoir of mourning in the aftermath of a devastating death. Five years into his marriage, his wife Katie, whom he met in the Peace Corps, is mauled and killed by a brown bear in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. They have been living in Bucharest on Katie’s fellowship when they decide to go for a trek with Sara, a friend. They are athletic, experienced hikers, too young to worry about personal destiny, never expecting the possibility of disaster, thinking themselves “invulnerable to trauma and tragedy,” when with a few misjudgments and unforeseen happenstance, the impossible occurs.
They had planned to stay overnight on the mountain in a small hostel, but it is filled when they arrive. They decide to have dinner there, after which they set out on a path along an arête to a larger place. It grows dark as they proceed. Katie is walking some paces behind with Sara and an over-weight, unfit Romanian they’ve picked up along the way. Katie turns her ankle on a rock. She tells John to go ahead with the other members of their group as she wants to sit for a few minutes, look at the sky, and catch her breath. Also, she doesn’t want to leave the lagging Romanian as the night comes on. John is irritated with her for what he sees as her stubbornness, a trait he has difficulty with. He’s tired, wants to get to bed, and is “relived to be absolved of any obligation to help her,” as he walks on to join the others.
When she doesn’t show up in a timely manner at the hostel, John backtracks to look for her. Searching by the lake where he’d last seen her, he finds their guide book with the pages ripped from the spine and then he hears her call out from the darkness, “Don’t come closer. Find a gun. Come back quickly,” He races to the hostel, but the manager will not give him a gun, nor will he use one himself to kill the bear. While they’re arguing, Sara and the Romanian escape the bear. John returns to Katie, unarmed, and futilely hurls rocks at the bear.
The bear that killed Katie had white fur on its paws and muzzle, and for a little less than an hour it flashed white across the path of my flashlight, making a deliberate measure of her body and slowly, without pretense, pressing her chest into the ground until it made no sound and did not return the force.
During the long aftermath of mourning, his guilt and shame at not saving her overwhelms him. Katie was heroic, having told Sara and the Romanian to leave her and run to save themselves, and he, the coward, because he hadn’t intervened directly. The memoir is atypical of the current genre in that there isn’t a smidgen of sentimentality or overblown emotionality in its introspective tone and pungent details. What is particularly brave in his narrative is that he never deifies Katie by virtue of her premature death. We see all aspects of her, her strengths and weaknesses, her courage and her ambivalence, and her irritating as well as her endearing qualities. We follow Evans’ deliberate and, yes, courageous, efforts to find his way through the process of healing in order to reach some meaning in the horror he’s witnessed and the love that he’s lost. By the end we understand, as he does, why this young widower must move on and make a new life.
Young Widower is a fully realized treatise on trauma, death, and mourning-part psychology, part philosophy, part moral search — and one extraordinarily well done.
Marnie Mueller’s Peace Corps book, Green Fires: A Novel of the Ecuadorian Rainforest, was a winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction and an American Book Award. The Climate of the Country, her second novel, is set in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp, where she was born. My Mother’s Island, which takes place in Puerto Rico, was a BookSense76 selection. She is at work on a non-fiction book, Triple Threat: The Story of a Japanese American Showgirl.