Mathis (Face Your Fears, 2018) offers a prequel novel that offers a striking account of life in 20th-century Chicago.
In 2009, Andres Rodriquez and his longtime romantic partner Josh Sawicki inherit a disused Chicago rooming house. They find, in the building’s ledgers, several diaries containing the history of the house’s inhabitants from its construction in 1887 to the present. Four of the entries belong to members of the Sawicki family. In the late 1800s, Josef Sawicki was a Polish immigrant on his own in America at the age of 17; his wife, Walentina, was a sex worker in a bathhouse with a secretive past. Together, they erected and maintained the multistory apartment building. Their son, Hank, and his wife, Mae, then took over and raised 10 children together. Two other entries belong to the Sawickis’ unofficial family—a young woman named Katerina Koslowski, who came to the boardinghouse as a pregnant teenager, and Manny Rodriguez, a gay Mexican man with a disabled arm. Also included are letters and comments from other family members, such as Katerina’s daughter, Krystina; Hank’s illegitimate son, Arnaud; and Hank’s youngest, most troubled child, Tommy. Together, the diaries comprise an extensive family history that ably captures the changing culture of the United States over the course of the 20th century, including events such as women’s suffrage, both world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis. Particular attention is paid to the transformation of social attitudes toward minority groups. Over the course of the novel, Mathis doesn’t avoid disturbing elements, from visceral accounts of childbirth to characters casually delivering racial slurs to chilling descriptions of childhood sexual assault. The way that he portrays family dynamics is insightful and raw; the characters’ flaws and virtues are complex and make the cast compellingly realistic. The prose also has a wry touch of humor that offsets the turbulent and often tragic events. It’s a lengthy story but well worth the time and effort.
A story of secrecy, suffering, fortitude, and compassion that demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the human psyche.