Is Genealogy Destiny?
In 1918, as Chicago copes with an influenza pandemic, a World War and the Cubs loss in the World Series, ten-year-old Jimmy Cullerton’s ma surprisingly sends him with his older brother to the South Side to collect support money from their estranged father. Slighted by his dad, Jimmy vows never to be like him and learns from his brother the need to bury the past. But he also discovers family he never knew existed.
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A century later, Jimmy’s retired son Kevin – a retired music teacher living in Door County, Wisconsin – embarks on a quest to understand his father’s secret life. He discovers his rogue grandfather and an entire Chicago Irish family about whom he has never heard a word spoken. Along the way, a secret from Kevin’s own past draws him into a relationship with a woman he hasn’t seen since she was an infant and forces him to reexamine and relive his relationship with his childhood closest friend Thomas and Thomas’ sister Pat. As memories and shadows from his personal and family past grow and merge, Kevin must reconcile their meaning to learn and decide who he was, and what he wants to be.
In the 2017 HAL PRIZE, the July, 1959 chapter (as a short story under another name) was awarded 2nd Place. Fiction Judge David Haynes wrote: “... So much is packed into a small space, with each gesture and image offering something important and useful to the fiction. A small beautiful gem.”
With one hundred and fifty years of Chicago history as the background, How Long A Shadow entwines the stories of three generation of Cullerton men as each chooses how they will deal with family, marriage, and fatherhood, and each other. Moving from the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, through the Covid 19 coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the shadow of “that man,” Edward Patrick Cullerton seems to always be just ahead of Jimmy and then his son Kevin.
Excerpt of book below.
About the Author
Dan Powers was raised and lived in Chicago for thirty-six years before moving to Door County, Wisconsin. He is a retired K-12 educator. He lives in Sturgeon Bay, wit his wife Joan, where he writes, volunteers, explores family genealogy, plays golf and follows the Cubs.
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
Publication date: 08/29/2020
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
By Scott Powers
The easy part is saying, “I’d love to read it.”
The hard part is when they come asking, “What did you think?”
When my uncle, Dan Powers, mentioned he was writing a novel, my reaction was the former. Then came the latter. In between, I worried a lot.
As a journalist and avid reader, I was excited to read his book. More than that, he’s family, and we’ve gotten somewhat close since my father passed away 14 years ago. We even traveled to Ireland together a few years back to do some genealogy research and share a few pints.
The flip side of that was my concern over the novel’s quality. I knew he was intelligent and could put together a few sentences as a former schoolteacher, but this was a novel. They’re a lot harder to land than grading someone’s essay. They require a way with words, creativity and clear storytelling. You hope a great novel never ends. You trash the awful ones quickly.
I had no idea upon which end of the spectrum his novel would fall. All I knew was I’d need to read the whole thing and then decide whether to tell the truth or lie to him. That potential dilemma gave me nightmares.
He ultimately made the decision easy on me. His novel, “How Long a Shadow,” was good — actually, really good. I even found myself somewhat jealous. It’s a book I don’t think I could have written, and that sort of hit a raw spot for me. Family or not, there’s a competitive streak in me I can’t extinguish. He had written the first great Powers novel.
That’s why I’m here today promoting it and making my return to the Irish American News, a publication I’ve loved for so long and first contributed to in 2005. Cliff Carlson was nice enough to allow me this space again. Slainte.
So, what is my uncle’s novel about? Well, it’s about Martians who invade Chicago, and the only way to get rid of them is to force-feed them Chicago-style pizza between 10:03 p.m.-10:17 p.m.
Which brings me to another item of my list of anxieties — writing a book review. How do you do a book justice, especially a family member’s, when explaining it to others? Soon, I’ll be the one asking him, “What did you think?”
His book is about family, the family you know and the one you don’t. His main character, Kevin Cullerton, searches for the missing pieces to his family history and ultimately uncovers things he never expected — about his family and himself. There were a few surprising turns I never saw coming, and they’re the ones that kept me reading beyond my bedtime. It’s that element of reading I love and hate. I love devouring a book and getting lost in it. I hate myself in the morning knowing I stayed up too late. I think I read this book in three sittings, and the second and third ones lasted hours.
The book does have a notable hook for this audience. It’s based in Chicago over many generations and includes some Irish genealogy. The book isn’t based on my uncle life, but it includes a number of topics he’s very knowledgeable on.
My main complaint with him and the book — and I’ve voiced this to him — is that it's self-published. He didn’t want to go through the process of attempting to get it made by a legitimate book publisher. I do get it. There’s a chance no one would have bitten on it. Great work isn’t always rewarded, especially in a timely fashion. One of my favorite books, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” was rejected time after time and was only published years after the author had died.
So, you won’t be seeing my uncle’s book at your local bookstore. But, thankfully, we live in a time where self-publishing isn’t a dead end. It’s just a matter of getting the word out and having people find it. It's available at NovelBayBooks.com, Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback or on Kindle.
I promise you won’t regret it. It’s worth your money and time. I told him I’d love to read his novel, and that ended up being the truth. I loved it, and I think you will too.
Excerpt: 1918, November 23
“Shake a leg there, Jimmy,” his brother prompted as he started
briskly up Albany Street to catch the Elevated Ravenswood line to
the Loop. Jimmy hurried and caught up. His excitement pushed him
along, what with it being his tenth birthday and all, plus this would
be the first time he’d be taking the trip. His mother didn’t ever let his
two older sisters go, even when they volunteered. Usually Richard,
who at thirteen was the second eldest boy, accompanied Ed. But
Richard had picked up some work sweeping and stocking at the corner
grocery, and money was too tight to turn any offer down. When
Ma told him to go, it had taken him by surprise, and although he
would never admit it, he felt more than a little apprehension. After
all, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the man.
Jimmy had ridden the streetcars before, but never the Elevated
train and certainly not all the way downtown and beyond. There
was just no need and often no money. According to Ma, everything
he required was right there in the parish, safely in the confines of
Our Lady of Mercy. Church, school, groceries – and that was his
ma’s priority order – all were within walking or biking distance.
While walking was the family’s default mode of transportation, the
Cullerton kids did share two bicycles they had managed to obtain.
Jimmy, though just in the middle of the pack age-wise, proved to
have a talent with his hands and figuring things out and had become
the family mechanic: fixing flats and broken chains, raising and lowering
the seats and handlebars. He took pride in his skills, though at
times, being on the skinny side, he needed help from Ed or Richard
to loosen a rusted or over-tightened nut.
At the corner Jimmy paused to give a quick hello and pet to
Dobbins, the local milk-horse, who patiently waited in harness for
Mr. Stone to return with the empties and click-click him on to their
next stop. A small American flag was tucked into his harness. They
were everywhere, hung on doors, in windows, stuck in the ground.
Each was an individual celebration of the eleventh hour of the eleventh
day of the eleventh month that had just ended the war. At
Montrose, Ed waited out several automobiles and a streetcar before
jaywalking across in the middle of the block. Jimmy scampered
to keep up, adjusting his gait to avoid stepping on a memento left
by one of Dobbin’s dwindling brethren that still hauled commercial
wagons on Chicago’s streets. They headed east, deftly moving
around slower pedestrian traffic, slacking only briefly to take in the
warm aromas as they passed the bakery. Along the sidewalk, on the
storefronts and light poles, more flags draped and hung, creating a
flapping corridor of red, white, and blue.
Anticipation helped Jimmy keep up with his brother’s longer
strides. Nearing the Kedzie Street station, the chill in the air no
longer registered. When they entered the dimness, Ed handed him
a dime to pay his own fare. Jimmy tried to imitate his brother’s nonchalance
as he handed the coin up to the man in the booth and
echoed, “Transfer to the South Side line, please,” as if he did this
every day. The boys hurried up the open-back cast-iron steps to the
loop-bound platform. Trying to match Ed’s two-step stride, Jimmy
tripped. He was grateful to Ed for not turning around or teasing
him. They emerged onto the dark-stained decking. The smell of
creosote scented the frost in the air.
The platform felt awfully narrow to Jimmy. He unconsciously
backed away from the painted edge that dropped off to the tracks.
Again imitating his brother, he stuffed his hands in his too large coat
pockets and leaned back against the advertisement boards, which
displayed route maps, service times, ads for war bonds, and a few
color posters touting the many places and experiences around the
city to which the El could carry you. With a slight elbow and side
nod of his head, Ed indicated a vandalized poster left over from the
Cubs – Red Sox World Series played back in early September. The
games had been moved up a month due to the war’s “Work or Fight”
order. The Cullertons, one and all, were serious baseball fans and
none was yet over the four games to two loss to Boston. In fact, Ma
still spoke ill of “that Babe Ruth fellow”, the young Red Sox pitcher,
who had whipped the Cubs twice.
The two boys stood silently in the open air, side by side. Despite
the six-year difference in their ages, any casual observer would take
them to be brothers. Besides thick brown hair, blue eyes and narrow
noses, they shared a natural leanness and a visible sense of being content
and comfortable in each other’s company. Ed kept his stare in
the direction from which the train would come. Jimmy’s eyes moved
constantly, surveying everything. He spied several posters across
the tracks on the opposite platform urging women BECOME a
NURSE - LEARN at HOME. Earn $15-$25 per week. It was another
sad reminder of the Spanish influenza epidemic that was just
starting to ease up around the city. Ma had even kept them home
from school for a week after a classmate, who Jimmy had liked,
died when her flu turned to pneumonia. On the second day of their
absence, a health official had visited the house to make sure they
weren’t sick and contagious.
Jimmy’s sad reverie exploded when his ears were suddenly assaulted
by the scream of steel scraping steel. His spine stiffened and
he turned toward the sound. A flat-faced line of train cars negotiated
the curved track, hurtling toward the platform, growing each second
in size and volume. Since Ed hadn’t, he forced himself not to cover
his ears, but his heartbeat crescendoed with the roar which came to
a sudden halt just feet in front of him.
The doors opened like huge gaping eyes, daring him to step forward.
A few passengers disembarked. Ed placed his hand on his
brother’s capped head and stepped forward, “Come on.” Jimmy
knew he’d have taken his brother’s hand if it had been offered.
They sat facing forward, Jimmy closest to the window. The car
gave a jerk and gathered speed. Sure in the route and familiar with
the sounds and sights, Ed relaxed against the back of the seat and
closed his eyes. Jimmy tried to keep his body still so as not to disturb
his brother, while his head swiveled, not wanting to miss a thing.
The rhythmic clacking of the rails and the regular stops and starts
lulled him at first. Gradually, as buildings began to huddle closer and
closer together and appear to move in closer and closer along side the
rails, he became more and more uneasy. The tracks elevated, living
up to their moniker. He was startled by the whir and blur of the flats
that now seemed keen to take his arm off if he was foolish enough
to stick it out the window. He was being inhaled into the depths of
the city. Stained brick walls and mullioned windows, back staircases
with peeling paint and flat tarred roofs leaned in on the passing
train. Wall, window, window, roof, wall, broken window, child’s face,
stairs, wall, window flew by in such a blur Jimmy needed to turn his
gaze forward to keep from going dizzy. The bright autumnal sky
disappeared, replaced by flashes of light flung at them through the
tight, narrow slits between buildings. Reprieve only came when they
crossed over an arterial street or slowed into the next station.
Jimmy’s slight frame pressed against the window when the train
cars began their counterclockwise swing around the loop like blood
platelets pumped through a heart before coursing back on their return
trip. The wheel on rail screeching became constant and so unbearable
that he finally did cover his ears. Embarrassed, he glanced
to Ed who kept his gaze ahead, apparently gauging their location,
though a half grin mingled with the tension in his jaw. The train
began to slow. “Come on, Jimmy. This is where we transfer.” They
The downtown throngs moved in both directions. With the close
proximity, many held coat collars, mufflers, or handkerchiefs over their
noses ready to flee any cough or sneeze. The sheer noise engulfed
Jimmy like the cold air itself. Sounds, which in the past he’d heard
only one at a time or in small clusters, scrummed together in massed
chaos. It bounced and amplified off the tall surrounding concrete and
steel. Ed’s hands kept Jimmy in front of him as he steered him by his
shoulders through the cross-currents of people and noise. He guided
him down one flight of shadowy stairs and then back up another toward
an approaching rumbling which plowed its way through the
ambient cacophony. It was like ascending into a thunder cloud. They
emerged onto the opposite platform. Half guided, half pushed, Jimmy
was propelled into the just arrived southbound train seconds before
the doors closed behind them. “Luck of the Irish,” Ed said. He lightened
his grip on Jimmy’s shoulders and guided him to two open seats,
one on either side of the aisle.
When the train jerked them into motion, Ed leaned across and
said to him as softly as he could while still being audible, “When we
get there, just let me do the talking – and don’t be asking no questions.”
Jimmy turned to his brother, also keeping his response low, instinctively
wanting to keep family matters private. “What’s he like?
I mean, I know I’ve seen him, but I don’t remember – except he
seemed tall and looked kind of old.”
“Well, you’ll see soon enough, won’t you?” Ed considered a moment
and added, “He’s mostly angry and all stiff-like, at least around
me. I guess being the oldest he figures I remember the most and
hold the biggest grudge. Or maybe I’m like some kind of mirror for
him, and I bet sure, he can’t like his own reflection much. Sometimes
I think he’s just a big showoff, you know…trying to be manly and
acting all put out like we’re stealing his money. I think he must feel
guilty about being so…you know being our pa, but not a real one.”
Ed’s face tightened. “Heck, most times I just hate the selfish old
bastard and wish I didn’t have to come for Ma’s money.”
The last sentence stiffened Jimmy into his seat. His brother’s
sudden anger and hurt startled him. He’d not seen it before. It was
something new and raw, and he didn’t want to hear, or feel it, not
now…not just before meeting his own father… not today on his
birthday. He closed his eyes against the words which had landed in
his stomach like a gut punch.
“Let’s go. It’s our stop coming.”
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