Book Review: The Distancers: An American Memoir

Aug 26, 2013

When Lee Sandlin was a young boy growing up in Chicago, each summer he was dropped off at the family home in Edwardsville, Ill., to stay with two great-aunts and two great-uncles. Sandlin describes his time there as a boot camp in old-fashioned values.

While he was taught manners at home in Chicago, in Edwardsville he learned the proper way to respect his elders, wash his hands, and say "please" and "thank you" in a way that helped this family that didn't even like each other get along under one roof.

During his stays in Edwardsville, his family of stoic Germans taught him many lessons about reticence. He learned that there is never a good time to talk about yourself. Your problems are nobody's business. Your triumphs are nothing special. The only thing more offensive than asking a personal question is answering one.

This made writing his memoir somewhat difficult. Even though he spent his formative summers with these people, he really didn't know that much about them or their past. He didn't even know how they were all related. Were they two married couples? All siblings? And when he questioned his great-aunt, he was shut down with contempt for having the audacity to even ask.

This lack of access to family members who talk about themselves makes Sandlin’s book The Distancers: An American Memoir even more impressive. Almost as an outsider, Sandlin was able to track his family history back to his great-great-great-grandparents, and he wove that history into stories that are quite readable.

Later in life, Sandlin risked a scolding and asked an old family friend if she thought his family was happy. She sighed and replied, "One or two might have been happy, but they were sure good at hiding it."