Fa­ther FIG­URE

Adopt­ing Ukrainian boys an emo­tional jour­ney for lo­cal poet

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gene Walz

RAIS­ING a child suc­cess­fully is not easy; rais­ing adopted chil­dren is even more dif­fi­cult. Rais­ing two adopted brothers, aban­doned by their par­ents at a very young age in an im­pov­er­ished for­eign coun­try (Ukraine) and ware­housed in sep­a­rate, in­ad­e­quate or­phan­ages, seems like an im­pos­si­ble task. Do­ing it after a failed mar­riage that pro­duced a sulky, dis­tant son, in a wob­bly new mar­riage, with a peren­ni­ally dis­tant and rest­less fa­ther as a role model, on a poet’s (non) salary, is what Mau­rice Mierau writes about in his new book. De­tach­ment: An Adop­tion Mem­oir is a frank, tense and fully en­gag­ing story of the pro­cesses and con­se­quences of adop­tion. And it’s more than this. Why did he and his wife Betsy adopt boys from Ukraine? Be­cause his Men­non­ite fam­ily roots go back there, al­low­ing him to do so. And that’s the other strik­ing part of this am­bi­tious mem­oir — an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his fam­ily his­tory. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing and tragic story, and it im­pacts di­rectly on him. Mierau is an ex­pe­ri­enced ed­i­tor (of the on­line Win­nipeg Re­view) and an award-win­ning poet with two books to his credit — Fear Not and End­ing With Mu­sic. Th­ese serve him well — he knows how to pare things down to the bare es­sen­tials and find salient, evoca­tive de­tails to ad­vance his nar­ra­tive. He’s also a pub­lished au­thor of the non-fic­tion book Mem­oir of a Liv­ing Dis­ease. Com­mis­sioned by the Man­i­toba Lung As­so­ci­a­tion, it tells the story of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, and, while it’s not a per­sonal ac­count, it clearly taught him how to struc­ture a nnar­ra­tive for max­i­mum dra­matic ef­fect. De­tach­ment be­gins in a psy­chol­o­gist’s oof­fice. Mierau drags him­self there three titimes at the in­sis­tence of his dis­con­tented wife Betsy. In this chap­ter, pun­ningly en­ti­tled Shrink­age, he pro­vides a glimpse in­into his back­ground and re­luc­tantly cconfesses his anx­i­eties and his short­com­ings, in­short­com­ings, his anger and frus­tra­tion.

It’s a shrewd tac­tic, set­ting up the ssus­pense that per­co­lates through­out the mem­oir. It also en­lists the sym­pa­thies and am­a­teur psy­cho­an­a­lytic ten­den­cies of the reader. Can a shrink ac­tu­ally help him? Or will he miss out on “the last chance to be a fa­ther”? Can he over­come his fam­ily’s pro­cliv­ity to sti­fling emo­tions and his own writerly sense of de­tach­ment? Will he be able to bond with his sons and help them deal with their own trau­matic pasts? As might be ex­pected, the adop­tion process in Ukraine does not go well. Clot­ted with need­less bu­reau­cracy and cor­rup­tion, it is com­pli­cated fur­ther by the fact that the two brothers, Peter, 5, and Bo­hdan, 3, live in sep­a­rate or­phan­ages 140 kilo­me­tres apart. Traips­ing back and forth be­tween the two places is ex­haust­ing. After all the tri­als and forms, there is a 30-day wait­ing pe­riod dur­ing which Mau­rice and Betsy must travel back to Canada and await a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive out­come. Once the would-be par­ents are suc­cess­ful, an im­me­di­ate trip with the boys to the small town of Mierau’s an­ces­tors pro­vides the first bridge in the mem­oir. It’s where his grand­fa­ther was ex­e­cuted for his Men­non­ite be­liefs and where his fa­ther as a young boy be­gan his trau­matic trek to Ger­many and even­tu­ally Canada. There are many jour­neys in this book, both phys­i­cal and emo­tional. They are sub­tle struc­tur­ing de­vices, the ma­jor one ob­vi­ously be­ing Mierau’s jour­ney from dam­aged, in­ad­e­quate par­ent to an emotionally healthy fa­ther. But it’s the story of the two boys that en­gages the emo­tions. They must over­come what amounts to child­hood PTSD (post-trau­matic stress disorder) to suc­cess­fully in­te­grate into the fam­ily and the school sys­tem. This is re­ally their story, and it’s a pow­er­ful one, well told. Gene Walz is the fa­ther of two daugh­ters and grand­fa­ther of two healthy boys.

De­tach­ment: An Adop­tion Mem­oir

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