In this keenly felt and deftly crafted book, Anne D. Emerson gives a vital new meaning to the phrase “extended family.” In Letters from ERASTUS Field Notes on Grace, the departed, through their resurrected words, reach across more than a century and a half to touch the living with their sympathy, their passion, and, most poignantly, with their love. Thus does Emerson recount how she not only found the letters that her great great grandfather Erastus Hopkins sent to his children (several of whom died young, as happened in those days), but passed some of these same letters on to her cousin Linc, an emotionally troubled young man incarcerated for manslaughter. In so doing, it’s as though this author has responded to a plaint in a poem by Seamus Heaney: “So much comes and is gone/that should be crystal and kept.”
It’s a remarkable book, nearly a new genre, a weaving of journal, memoir, history, family history, and, one might venture, inadvertent poetry. At a time when the American family is going from nuclear to atomized, Emerson presents us with a new, renewing vision of that beleaguered, exasperating, marvelous institution. To wit: those departed men and women lived and loved and are still with us in more than our genes if we would but beckon to them. It’s a vision of family that also looks forward. It reminds us that our own work and our own words may some day reach beyond us to touch and comfort those yet to come.