What hooks you about Sharon Harrigan’s potent memoir Playing with Dynamite is just how true the story is. The book is reminiscent of the quest narrative: a woman going on a journey into the forgotten, suppressed, and painful parts of her past to discover more about herself. Under the surface, the memoir marinates in the intersection of personal truth and memory. What is truth, the memoir asks, and can our memories even be considered truth? These are the questions that the narrative provokes in the reader, and the way it explores these questions feels both right and unexpected. Taken as a whole, Playing with Dynamite is an explosive, quiet, and deeply personal read that examines the necessity of storytelling and the nature of grief, for indeed, is storytelling not the way we grieve, the way we make sense of chaos, and the way we eventually learn to heal?
What I found so enthralling about Harrigan’s memoir, aside from the fluid narrative that drifts back and forth from finely crafted vignette to fleshed out scene, was how utterly true its themes ring. Playing with Dynamite begins with a central question: who was my father? As the memoir opens, the narrator establishes this irony, this twist of fate that forever changed the narrator’s life. “When my father took my six-year-old sister on a trip to kill a deer, the deer killed him,” Harrigan writes, and from then on, the memoir is haunted by this presence of the narrator’s father, by this traumatic sense of premature loss, and by a wondering for what could have been. What could have turned out differently. The narrator realizes that she don’t really understand who her father was. The narrator only has the thick fog of childhood memory and stories to construct a ghostly image of her father. This becomes the central theme of the memoir. Too often we prolong our own healing, Harrigan argues, convincing ourselves that all we need are half-truth stories. Sometimes though, for true fulfillment, we need the full story. Playing with Dynamite seeks to paint a portrait of a person through story, a labor of love if there ever was one.
As the narrator pieces together the puzzle of her father’s life, so too does she see himself in her own life. It is this quest for understanding that not only helps her understand her father and herself, but also to bond with other members of her family. “I was trying so hard to identify with my father. But here I was, feeling much more like my uncle,” Harrigan writes, later in the memoir when the narrator makes a pilgrimage to her ancestral home of Michigan to learn more truth about her father’s death. This highlights one of the major themes present in the novel—though healing may sometimes hurt, and though sometimes the stories we’ve convinced ourselves are truth really aren’t, the healing process is undoubtedly necessary, and prolonging it can sometimes cause damage in other ways. People are more complex than the mere stories we tell about them when they’re gone.
Exploration of family, loss, and the friction between story and truth drives the memoir forward thematically, but it’s not the only thing Playing with Dynamite has going for it. As a poet, I love reading works in other genres that display such a powerful attention to detail in language and craft. Harrigan’s prose is both vivid and clear, full of power and meaning, but also beautifully poetic. I always appreciate it when a writer stops to admire the roses. Harrigan does this masterfully, and always at the perfect moment to evoke one of my favorite reactions from reading: poetry-goosebumps. Take this passage near the end:
I can’t be sure I’ve discovered the whole truth of my father’s story or even of my own—if such truth is even possible given the haze inherent in memory. Perhaps he lingers in the clouds, maybe not the ones that make it all the way up to heaven, but the ones that can’t quite leave earth.
I like to imagine my father is still floating in that fog. I like to imagine I’m not anymore. After all, I can imagine whatever I want.
Playing with Dynamite is truly a memoir that hooks you and won’t let go. It’s a quiet sort of drama that unveils. The book is both subdued, personal, and evocative. It makes the reader look into their own lives and think about the nature of storytelling itself. What begins as a quest for understanding becomes a vehicle for exploration of theme. The result is a satisfying gut punch of a memoir. Playing with Dynamite is a book you turn the last page of and just have to put down, and then sit and think. Next to poetry goosebumps, this is easily the best thing a book can do for you, and this book has both. If I could experience it again for the first time I would. Since I can’t, I’ll just have to experience it again for the second time.
Playing with Dynamite, by Sharon Harrigan. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press, October 2017. 248 Pages. $16.95, paper.
Robert Young was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His work has been published in Midwestern Gothic, The Evansville Review, and others. He is currently living and writing in Massachusetts.