ONCE: As It Was

Griselda Jackson Ohannessian, Author
Griselda Jackson Ohannessian, Author . William L. Bauhan $14.95 (163p) ISBN 978-0-87233-131-0
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To great dramatic effect, Ohannessian, president of the publisher New Directions, saves the emotional punch of her story for the end, opening with a family idyll and ending with a tragedy. Writing from her own adolescent point of view, Ohannessian, the oldest of four children of Time critic Schuyler Jackson and his wife, Katharine, describes growing up in the 1930s on a large farm near New Hope, Pa. Her childhood was largely peaceful: both of her parents ("Ma" and "Bousie") came from privileged backgrounds. For most of this wistful yet unsentimental memoir, Ohannessian recalls family friends and childhood events, creating a tranquil, routine pace with an underlying feeling of foreboding. The end of the idyll came in July and August 1939, when Bousie invited the poet Laura Riding, her erstwhile lover Robert Graves and the band of intellectuals and writers she commandeered to live at the farm. Both of her parents were enchanted with Riding, but Ohannessian, then 12 years old and, by her own account, more perceptive, noted the psychological wedge Riding drove between them. The author's mother, normally a confident woman, began to deteriorate mentally; driven to the edge of insanity, in a brief, desperate moment she tried to choke the author. Although their mother's health was later restored, nothing could ever redeem Bousie to his children; he remained loved but not respected, eventually marrying Riding and living with her for nearly 30 years. Many other versions of this story exist. But what makes Ohannessian's account, at once tragic and beautiful, stand out is that it has been carefully but unaffectedly sketched by an author who understands that much of life is beyond understanding. (June 30)

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