Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: Mr Joe--Tales from a Haunted Life

I was not sure what to expect when I opened Mr. Joe: A Haunted Life, by Jane Congdon and Joseph Barnett. Jane assured me it was not a collection of ghost stories, although Mr. Joe saw ghosts. So what was it? The answer is that Mr. Joe is a memoir of a life lived sometimes on the edge--the edge of reality, prosperity, poverty, loneliness, joy and fear. It is a man's life, past shadowing present, failure coloring success, and above all, love and forgiveness found along the path back to family. Written with his sister, author Jane Congdon, Mr. Joe is a story you will remember long after you turn the last page.

Joe Barnett, dubbed Mr. Joe by the children at the school where he worked, is a man who has had his share of hardship. He's lost jobs, lost loves, lost family. He lived with a family secret that everyone knew but did not mention, and he fled from that darkness to a new life that looked promising but brought more pain and sorrow as he struggled to keep his own little family together, make ends meet, and deal with the ghosts of his past and the ones inhabiting his workplace.

Let go from a well-paying factory supervisory position, Joe finds himself the night custodian at a "kindergarten school" built near or perhaps even over a graveyard; no one is really sure. But one thing is absolutely certain: there are beings other than live humans occasionally manifesting themselves in the school and Mr. Joe encounters more of them than he cares for during his night shifts in the building.

Weaving memories of his childhood in West Virginia with those of his failed marriage, struggles to care for his sons as a single dad and his unsuccessful attempts at finding a new mate, Mr. Joe tells the story of an ordinary man making his way through life the best way he can. The ghosts of his past intrude often; the ghosts of the school do too, disrupting his work and making Mr. Joe's tasks a little more difficult with their antics.

This is no great history, no tale of boy-makes-good or rags to riches. It's not a ghost story as we tend to define that genre and it is certainly no romance or light family story. Joe Barnett is a real man with the uncanny ability to see ghosts. His ride has not been smooth but it has certainly been interesting, and his voice as his story unfolds remains strong and true throughout.

What makes the book compelling is Joe's willingness to not only tell us about his failures but to also explore what happened and why, and what he learned as he continued to stand up straight and do the best he could with what he had to work with. Humorous pranks and adolescent anxieties mix with worries about job evaluations, interactions with the inhabitants of the kindergarten school, tight budgets and his ever-present ambivalence about his troubled relationship with his mother. The stories spill from the pages like good conversation; laughter and tears mingle as Mr. Joe opens up his life to us.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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