The Rooming House Diaries - Life, Love & Secrets
By Bill Mathis
Six diaries and some correspondence are found in an old Chicago rooming house. The diaries span the 20th century. Written by the immigrants who built the place in 1887, their children and several roomers, they tell the stories of everyday people struggling, surviving and succeeding at life amidst the historical backdrop of World Wars I & II, the Great Depression, prejudice, demographic changes in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, and epidemics, including AIDS. It's rich, deep, at times raw, yet shows the humanity, spirit and love of family, both blood related and non-DNA.
It's a novel of changing times and attitudes; family secrets covered up for over one hundred years; religious, ethnic and gender prejudice; the changes in Chicago, a neighborhood and our nation; the joys of diversity and the richness of our society, warts and all.
"So, now we got us an eighteen-year-old Mexican from Tiawano and an albino banker from Roseland living on the third floor..."
Josef Sawicki knows that his time on earth is coming to an end. But before he dies, he wants to pen his memoirs so that his story will not be forgotten. What the old man did not realise was that he had started a tradition that would go on for three generations. This is the story of the Sawicki family and the Rooming House that was their business and their home.
The Rooming House Diaries - Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis is an emotionally charged story of a seemingly inconsequential rooming house and the people that lived there.
With a sweeping, yet intimate narrative — composed of a memoir, diary entries and letters — and a crystalline understanding of what makes reading entertaining, Mathis has presented his readers with a book that is as mesmerising as it is powerful. This novel spans three generations and over one hundred years of history — it begins in a small village in Olsztyn, Poland (East Prussia) and ends with the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. In the pages of this remarkable book, Mathis has penned a story that is as lucid in the telling as it is rich in the historical detail. Mathis takes his readers on a poignant journey of discovery and has written an unputdownable tale.
Six fabulous protagonists tell the story of The Rooming House, but I am just going to focus on two of them as well as one of the secondary characters. The first protagonist I want to talk about is a wonderful lady called Mae Sawicki. Mae married Hank, the son of the original owner of the Rooming House. Mae was like a fresh of breath air on a hot summer’s day. She was immensely likeable, full of good humour and a character that was an absolute pleasure to read about. Mae does face several trials and tribulations throughout this book, but her sense of joy and her love for her family is never diminished. The one thing I really liked about Mae was how she saw the world. She becomes very liberal in her views, especially when she is a very old woman, and in the end, she doesn't seem to care where you are from, and what your story is, all she is interested in is who you are now. With this approach to life, it is very easy to understand how she becomes a motherlike figure to several lodgers, for she is filled with tenderness and compassion. Sometimes she takes a little while to like and trust, but when she does, then there is nothing she would not do. She is the truest of friends. Mae is an incredible heroine.
My absolute favourite character in this book is a young Mexican called Manny Rodriguea. Manny's back story is incredibly moving — it is one of poverty, physical abuse and prostitution. Manny, however, is one of the most complex, and the most caring character in this book. He is this wonderful young man who is desperately trying to escape his past and start again. Being a Mexican in Chicago in the 1960s is a challenge — being gay makes it twice as hard. I adored everything about this character. He is the most caring and compassionate man who anyone would be proud to call a son, but whose own father fails to see the gem that Manny is. Despite a very dubious background, Manny is a very reserved young man, which more than likely saves his life. He ends up helping those who have AIDs die with dignity and respect. Manny is a character that will stay with me for a very long time.
Tommy is a source of violence and danger in this book, and although he is not one of the main characters, I feel I have to spend a little time scrutinising his depiction. Even from a toddler, Tommy is a threatening menace. He is uncontrollably violent, and his parents have no idea how to handle him — and it is not because they are bad parents, or that they are doing something wrong. In today's society, Tommy would have been under a paediatrician for his mental health — he shows signs of extreme Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). Back in the late 1940s, children's mental health and disorders such as autism were only just being recognised, and it wasn't really understood. To write about a child who has an extremely violent mental health condition such as this, but then to express it so vividly and in a historical setting would, I think, be a challenge for many very experienced authors. Mathis' depiction of Tommy was staggeringly realistic.
Tommy is a character that will not attract sympathy from a reader, and I don't think Mathis wanted to make his readers sympathise with him. Tommy has very few redeemable qualities. He is excessively violent. He is narcissistic — he takes no responsibilities for his actions and blames his parents, particularly his father, for everything. He also becomes a violent sexual predator at a very young age. There are scenes in this book where Tommy is sexually abusing a younger child which was incredibly difficult in the reading, and it did make me feel physically sick. But what I was fascinated in was how, when discovered, this sexual abuse was dealt with. There were no therapists for either child and instead, Tommy is sent away to a boy's home because his parents do not know how to deal with him. The guilt that Tommy's parents feel and the grief that they have to go through to come to terms with the fact that Tommy isn't, nor will he ever be, the person whom they had imagined he would become is very sensitively approached and drawn. I thought Tommy's portrayal was incredibly convincing and the emotional rollercoaster that his parents go through is very real in the telling. They certainly had my sympathy.
The historical detailing of this book has to be commended. Over a hundred years of history is crammed into this book. I can only imagine how many hours Mathis spent researching all the different eras. However long the research took it was most definitely worth it. This book is a monumental work of scholarship. But it is not just the historical detail in this book that has to be commended. It is the hours researching the historical sociocultural anthropology / sociology as well. L. P. Hartley once wrote that "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." They also thought differently as well, and so, therefore, there are incidents of blatant racism and homophobia throughout most of this book because that is what society was like back then. But Mathis balances this awful prejudice by giving his readers Manny — who is both a Mexican and gay — which I thought was really well thought through.
Mathis gives us a glimpse into the lives of some very ordinary people. We become privy to their most cherished aspirations. We lament in their defeat and celebrate their success. This is a book that demands every conceivable emotion from its readers. I laughed out loud. I cried. I felt moments of anger and disgust. But I also felt a sense of hope, a sense of life, for that is what this book is about, it is about life in all its honest, ugly, beautiful detail.
At times The Rooming House Diaries - Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis does make for some emotionally challenging reading, but it is also immensely successful. This is the kind of book that deserves to be read again and again and again, and it is one you want all your friends to read as well so you can all chat about it over coffee. It is undoubtedly worthy of a place on your bookshelf.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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The Rooming House Diaries
Bill Mathis won the 2019 Pencraft Runner Up award for Family Fiction. Bill began writing after he retired from careers in YMCA camping and foster care. His books involve family, warts and all, usually some LGBTQ characters, diversity and non-DNA family. He resides in Beloit, Wisconsin and enjoys writing, reading, volunteering and traveling.