A Death in the Family by James Agee (Literature as a Tool)

I had no idea when I started listening to this book that it had anything to do with drinking and alcoholism.  I knew that it’s a story about a boy whose father dies when the boy is six.  I was six when my father died.  This book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction so I thought I’d give it a try.


The writing is poetic and beautiful.  The voices of the characters seem authentic, from the six-year-old boy’s younger sister to his grandmother and in between.  Because my father died when I was six, I have some understanding of what that’s like, though of course my memories aren’t very long or detailed.  This child noticed different things than I noticed, remembered different things, and understood things differently.  It was very good.


I was astonished part way through by the description of the feeling of wanting a drink.  This, by an older character, not the six-year-old boy.  It was an excellent telling of what that feels like, and the rationalizations that go along with drinking alcoholically.  I actually asked Carole to listen to it, it was that good.


There’s also a question of whether or not the death was caused by drinking, and that’s an important question.  Today I imagine we would mostly know if alcohol was involved, but back then they may not have investigated that, or reported it if it was indeed a factor.  It was the factor in my father’s death, though that didn’t get made public, I don’t think.


When I finished the book I looked up the author and found out that he died young, like his father.  He has been described as a “hard drinker.”  The book brought together those elements for me in a way that is not like what I experienced, and yet it also is like what I experienced.  It leaves me with a sense of gratitude that in my own personal legacy, I have broken that chain.

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