A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
No Map, No GPS, No Return
Jane Dwinell and Sky Yardley, Alzheimer’s Canyon: One Couple’s Reflections on Living with Dementia. Rootstock Publishing, 2022
Sky Yardley and Jane Dwinell were partners in every sense of the word. Together, they built several houses for themselves in Vermont, and while they remained Vermonters, they also lived in California while Jane attended divinity school, and in New Orleans, where they helped people rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and eventually built a house of their own. Feeling “restive” in Burlington after their children grew up, they spent summers touring the canals of France in a houseboat they had restored themselves, and they planned to sail the American Great Loop in a rebuilt sailboat. In the midst of their active, productive sixties, they found that Sky was slowly losing his navigating and carpentry skills. In 2016, he was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's Disease.
Instead of hiding the diagnosis, they adopted Sky’s determined response: “No cure. Onward.” And “onward” meant reaching out to other Alzheimer’s patients, their friends, and their caretakers. Taking advantage of Jane's ministerial contacts, they put together a sermon and workshop about their experiences with Alzheimer’s; they gave it in 25 locations from Maine to Washington state. They attended Atlanta conferences of the Dementia Action Alliance. As long as possible, they continued their previous volunteer work. And they started a blog.
That blog forms the core of Alzheimer's Canyon. The book opens with a Prologue in which Jane summarizes the couple’s pre-Alzheimer's life; it closes with an Epilogue in which she describes her life since Sky’s death. Occasionally, especially in the last year of Sky’s life, she fills in necessary information as his voice disappears. But most of the book is a reprint of the blog in which the couple recorded their day-to-day perspectives on Sky’s illness and its effect on their partnership between August 2016 and February 2021.
One of the blog’s great strengths is that it demonstrates how articulate someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s can be. When Sky describes moments of confusion at a conference, poignantly elucidates his humiliation as he can’t count out change at a crowded store, or jokes about his temporary panic as he gets lost in a train, each painful incident is meticulously recreated. He is eloquent, describing his loss of short-term memory as “loosing the tethers of time.” And he is often funny, as when he invents an invisible friend Mnemo, the elephant in the room who sniggers at people who assume that the primary problem besetting Alzheimer’s families is keeping up appearances. It takes Jane’s posts to show us the loss Sky’s articulation prevents us from feeling: she describes her sorrow at finding he can no longer play the piano, or help her and the children build a camp on the lake. She is as upfront as he is about her sorrow at the threat of losing their 30-odd year partnership: “I want my old Sky back.” We know, from both their posts, that the losses are escalating. Still, even though we know that Sky can barely read and write, one of the book’s saddest lines is Jane’s simple notation towards the end of the third year: This is Sky’s final blog post.
The book’s tour de force is the piece reflected in its title. “Alzheimer’s Canyon” is an eleven-chapter parable Sky wrote between April 2017 and February 2018. Reprinted achronologically every twenty pages, each chapter describes the surreal adventures of a narrator who is forced to exit off a super highway onto a one-way rutted road to Alzheimer’s Canyon. No map. No GPS. No return. The only direction is down. Various characters appear, but saving Sky from an inexplicable fall is Dusty Rhodes, an invisible cowboy whose truth-telling somehow provides comfort in a canyon with no hope. Brilliantly humorous, often slapstick, heartbreakingly transparent, it’s a work of tremendous power. All families faced with a journey they didn’t choose to take will treasure it. No cure. Onward. Onward with the intelligence, love and courage that touch every page of Jane and Sky’s story.