Bookmonger: Uneven but thoughtful novel looks at family memories, mental health

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 12, 2013 

Seattle writer Peter Kahle has toiled in this region's literary vineyards for years and has a clutch of distinctive books to show for it. His latest is a novel, "Passage of the Kissing People." The awkward title is offset with gorgeous cover art by Matthew Muth - and lyrical early chapters amplify the emotions of a happy childhood in 1950s Sonoma.

These are the recollections of stained glass artist Michael Kohler more than 40 years later, remembering his life as a 7-year-old, when his biggest complaint was a bossy big sister.

Michael's family had moved to Sonoma so both parents could work at the Sonoma State Home for the Feebleminded. After school every day, Michael and his sister were looked after by the wife of the State Home's security director. It was an unconventional childhood, but not an unhappy one.

The Kohlers' next-door neighbors were a large Italian family with sweet-faced Gisela Marossi the object of young Michael's desire, and her teenage brother Joe the object of his hero worship. Although Joe occasionally succumbed to wild mood swings that landed him in the State Home for medication adjustments, Michael liked Joe for his underlying kindness.

The two families - parents and kids - became good friends, until a tragic misunderstanding wrenched them apart, and the hapless children on both sides were forbidden from seeing each other. Michael's family moved away shortly thereafter and it isn't until 40 years later that Michael returns to Sonoma to work on a stained glass commission.

All these years he has harbored a secret - he had taken a good-luck charm from the Marossi household, a brooch of two figures kissing, and never had a chance to return it. He figures now is the time to make things right - if any of the Marossis still live in the area.

Kahle writes a descriptive and emotionally textured narrative, and the lead characters are true-to-life. Some of the secondary characters, however, are more one-dimensional - the spiteful aunt whom everybody loves to hate, the strident health-nut hostess, and others.

Somewhere in between are the matter-of-fact daughters who, as young women, mop up after their parents' messes.

Structurally, the story marches dutifully through some of Michael's life chapters that might be told more effectively in subtler ways - his superficial wife and her shallow ambitions take up too much page real estate, for example.

Still, this novel has its virtues. Kahle explores the shorthand created by every family around communal memories. Although he may go a bit overboard with the raft of coded words and hot-button phrases he endows the Kohler family with, it does serve as a reminder of how traditions are created and what makes each family unique.

The book also illuminates the significant changes in mental health practices and treatments that took place over the latter half of the 20th century.

"Passage of the Kissing People" encompasses tragedy, mystery, artistic sensibility and a hazy garlic-and-basil-infused romance (an Italian family is involved, after all). It is a thoughtful work.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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