Grief and Recovery Motivate Classically-Inspired Memoir (Petoskey News and Review, July 20, 2016)

Glen Young Special to the News-Review 

Grief takes a variety of forms and requires a range of responses.

In “Out of the Inferno” Petoskey area writer Randy Evans provides a look at one such response. Evans wrote the new memoir in the wake of wife Laurene’s death to breast cancer, and as a key component of his grieving.

Part Two of his “Red Sky Series,” Evans says, “It’s something I’d been working on for over 10 years. I’d been working through my grief in hard science and the fantasy of novels, but neither was working.”

Subtitled “A Husband’s Passage Through Cancerland,” Evans eventually fixed on the metaphor Dante’s “Inferno,” the classic 14th century tale of the poet’s odyssey through hell guided by Virgil.

Evans says after lengthy reflection on his own sadness, he “realized I no longer needed to get over it.”

In his introduction he writes, “My daily grief still lingered, but began to soften like the lovely light filtering down through the leaves and branches of the tall magnolia tree that had stood in the front yard of my Houston home.”

Remembered from a favorite college class, Evans recognized, “Dante’s pilgrimage seemed to parallel my own.”

After this, “the book started organizing around the epigrams,” he says. Chapter 1 starts where Dante starts, “Stopped mid-motion in the middle/ Of what we call our life.”

There are also lessons highlighted in each of Evans’ chapters, such as “Lesson Nine” that explains how, “Help comes in many forms and in unexpected ways,” or “Lesson Nineteen” that asserts, “Grief involves thoughts and feelings about loss. Mourning is the process of picking up the pieces.”

Evans illustrates the idea of picking up the pieces from the beginning, as he recounts the memory of his father-in-law Neil Schmitt.

“It’s not a story just about the two of us,” he says referring to himself and Laurene, “but about family and friends and medical professionals. There are huge numbers of people involved” in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.

Because Neil’s mother also died of breast cancer, Evans understands how Neil’s experience supports his own.

“I also wanted other universal themes readers might be interested in,” he explains. “Readers want to recreate their own experiences while reading.”

From diagnosis through treatment and decline, Evans chronicles his and Laurene’s odyssey, all the while returning to Dante’s journey as well as those universal lessons attached to any story of grief and loss.

Evans says while recounting the arc of his sorrow, “Some of the funny things came out, as well as the serious things.”

He recalls with a laugh the time the family cat landed in the clothes dryer during a hasty dinner, the family pet fluffed but unharmed.

He says the decision to use Dante also comes down to how the poet “had to rely on his guide and blindly follow and trust things would work out,” much the way Evans and Laurene had to do the same. Where Dante organized around 34 cantos in the first book of his “Divine Comedy,” Evans’ book traverses 34 chapters.

His book came only after many other earlier steps, however. After Laurene’s death in 2002, Evans told himself, “I have to rebuild my life,” which meant going back to school. He earned his PhD and developed his writing career before falling in love again, with new wife Denise.

In the end, Evans realizes, “The grief is part of who I am now.”

Evans says readers are affirming his work.

“The best part is feedback from readers,” he said. “Hearing from people who enjoy the book and are getting something useful is the biggest payback for me.”

At more than 400 pages, the book charts a lengthy course. Readers are undeterred, however, as the book currently sits at or near the top of several memoir categories on Amazon.com.

While “Out of the Inferno” chronicles Evans’ journey through the hell of breast cancer, he has much more to write about, with other books on the horizon. Next up is “Crooked River: Love, Adventure, and a Search for Belonging in Northern Michigan,” the story of “people who end up in Northern Michigan and fall in love,” Evans explains. “It’s a big sprawling adventure novel.”

Behind that is “The Lawnmower Club: How Leo Zitzelberger Lost and Found Paradise on Earth.” The new books are also part of his “Red Sky Series,” and all are available locally at McLean and Eakin or Horizon Books in Petoskey, or Between the Covers in Harbor Springs.

Randy Evans will sign copies of “Out of the Inferno” at Between The Covers, 106 Main St., Harbor Springs at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 21. For more information, call (231) 526-6658.

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