Bittersweet book signing celebrates memoir by Alzheimer's victim

Poet Margaret Gibson at her home in Preston on Oct. 3, 2014. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Poet Margaret Gibson at her home in Preston on Oct. 3, 2014. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Earlier this year, in an admirable effort amidst the turbulence of the publishing business, the University of Georgia Press decided to reissue some of its worthy but long-out-of-print titles in deluxe paperback editions — and the first resurrected was “Spellbound: Growing Up in God’s County,” the memoir first published in 1988 by Preston author/ex-University of Connecticut professor David McKain.

The book won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Prize in Creative Nonfiction and was enthusiastically reviewed by such publications as The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune. An account of McKain’s distinctive boyhood in a small Pennsylvania mountain town in the 1940s and ’50s, “Spellbound” is rife with tragedy and hardship but also details with warmth and wit triumphs and perseverance.

McKain’s father was a lay preacher whose erratic absences and violence against his wife and son may have been connected to epilepsy. Too, the sudden death in childhood of McKain’s sister was a source of emotional devastation. But David’s subsequent and independent journey through adolescence — and against the increasing rage and irrational behavior of his father — is a marvelously observed study in astute introspection, maturation and adolescent adventure. All those experiences, including the death of his father, culminated with McKain matriculating at the University of Connecticut, where he studied English and played scholarship basketball.

On Sunday, the Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly will host a celebratory reading/discussion of “Spellbound,” and who knows? It’s possible McKain might even be there.

If that sounds as though the author is indifferent or even callous to fans and his well-deserved publishing news, it’s important to know that McKain was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006.

His wife, Margaret Gibson, a National Book Award-nominated poet, and his close friend, Mystic attorney Frank Eppinger, will make presentations in his stead. Gibson will read from “The Broken Cup,” a collection of poems written about the relationship with her husband in the context of Alzheimer’s, and Eppinger will read from “Spellbound.”

That a memoir — yes, the root of the word connotes memory — should become a foggy or forgotten property in the mind of its creator is indeed cruel. But Gibson, whose “Broken Cup” is in its own right a heart-melting memoir of McKain’s post-diagnosis journey, is steadfast in her appraisal of the situation.

“I see (the Savoy reading) as a celebration of memory, of memory skillfully recorded and recreated, a childhood and a world rescued from inattention and ordinary forgetfulness,” Gibson says, writing last week in an email interview. “We all have stories to tell. David told his — and told it beautifully.”

Gibson further describes the context of the event as “figure and ground.”

“The figure in the foreground is David,” she explains, “and the celebration of his book. The ground is the present, a time in which David’s memory loss from Alzheimer’s continues to make its inevitable progression. I see the celebration of his wonderful book against that background. The background shadow makes the figure in the light more full of light.”

The reprint of “Spellbound” was a complete surprise. Gibson says, “This was pure gift — a book dropping out of the sky after the hardbound and two other paperback editions (from other presses) had gone out of print.”

She told her husband about the reprint and says he broke into a big smile and said, “That’s good.” Later, after he seemed to not pay attention when she informed him of the Savoy event, she felt despondent and wondered aloud whether he cared about such things anymore.

“He looked at me mildly but directly in the eye,” Gibson remembers, “and responded, ‘Yes, I do care.’”

McKain, who was also a renowned poet, worked on “Spellbound” in the mid-’80s while he and Gibson, who at that point had been married 10 years, were writers-in-residence at Andover Academy in Massachusetts. In that precise environment, and given that the couple were both professional writers, it might be expected that Gibson had considerable input on McKain’s manuscript. To a certain extent, it’s true.

“Writers essentially write in solitude,” Gibson says. “Writers married to each other understand that solitude and don’t interrupt it — except when lunch is ready.”

Despite the requisite solitude, McKain and Gibson learned when and whether to seek out one another’s opinions on works-in-progress — and how to facilitate and craft an honest critique. For “Spellbound,” Gibson says that, after reading the complete first draft of the book, she pointed out there was no chapter on dating and girls. “And, well, I knew there had been girlfriends,” she says. “And so a new chapter was born.”

Another edifying benefit for a writer married to another writer is the added perspective one can gain about a partner through the other’s work — particularly in the case of a memoir. Gibson, for example, learned nuances about the passing of McKain’s sister, the beautifully carved descriptions of the terrain and small town life in the Alleghenies, and particularly his mother’s courage during times of spousal abuse.

“When David first showed me the chapter in which his father slaps his mother — a wrenching scene — he sat down to watch me read,” Gibson says. “I didn’t know what was in the writing, of course, although I did note it was unusual for David to watch me read his work. When I got to the scene, I began crying and looked over at David and asked, ‘Is this true?’ And he nodded. We’d been married 10 years and he’d never told me.”

For the Savoy reading, Gibson is profoundly grateful for Eppinger’s participation. “I wanted a man’s voice reading David’s book,” she says. “Because of his Alzheimer’s, David won’t be at the microphone, although I hope he’ll be at the event.” She humbly describes her own participation as “side show; the main attraction is the celebration of David’s wonderful memoir.”

While composing the email answers to the questions for this story, Gibson worked on a computer in her husband’s old study, and on the wall is a plaque that hung over his kitchen table when he was a boy. It reads: “In everything give thanks.”

Gibson says, “I think the essential grace and gratitude of this message became central to his thoughts about his childhood as he wrote ‘Spellbound.’ I think these words are still central to the way he lives his life — with grace and gratitude and kindness.” 

Gibson with her husband, David McKain. (Photo submitted)
Gibson with her husband, David McKain. (Photo submitted)

IF YOU GO

Who: Margaret Gibson and Frank Eppinger reading work by David McKain

What: Celebration of the reissue of McKain’s award-winning memoir, “Spellbound”

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Savoy Bookshop and Café, 10 Canal St., Westerly

How much: Free; books available for purchase

Information: (401) 213-3901

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