By BILL DUNCAN
As a writing instructor I have often taught a course in writing a memoir in which one of the toughest lectures is presenting students with the challenge of writing about the bad things that happen in family dynamics. Some of the recent classic memoirs that did not gloss over those incidents, are Rick Bragg’s “All Over But the Shouting,” and Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle.”
Neither does Jay Varner in his recently released “Nothing Left to Burn,” the story about Varner being traumatized over a family secret and coming to terms with the facts. As a reporter for his hometown newspaper, The Sentinel in McVeytown, Pennsylvania he learns the truth about his grandfather and father. His father, Denton Varner, is the town’s fire chief. His grandfather, Lucky Varner, is the town’s serial arsonist.
Was revealing the truth about his grandfather easy for Varner? It was painful and certainly not easy.
“I started writing this as a novel,” he said, not ready to let the world know the truth about his family secret and the two men, each having an obsession, one to burn everything in sight, the other driven by guilt to extinguish what the other had set on fire. In the middle of that was a confused young boy who felt he was being ignored by his father’s dedication to the firehouse and a mysterious grandfather he feared.
Varner remembers that his grandfather collected junk from around the town, brought it to their home every Saturday and set fire to it in a deep hole which was once the basement of the family home before the grandfather burned it down. Even as a small boy, he knew something was wrong when he could see the glee in his grandfather’s face as he watched the inferno.
It was a secret no one talked about. He resented his father, the town fire chief, who never had time for him because of his firefighting duties. It took Varner years to come to grips with the painful truth and that only after as a reporter in his hometown newspaper and began covering the police and fire beat. He had started the story as a novel back in his college journalism days, but had set it aside because his narration just wasn’t working. His memory about coming of age with that trauma haunting him, wouldn’t stay hidden in the desk drawer along with the unfinished novel.
When Varner started writing the book as a memoir, he discovered his father in a different light as a town hero and a respected fire chief. He really understood that view when he recalled when his father was battling cancer and how the whole community was praying for a miracle.
Varner devotes several chapters to poignant stories about his father’s positive outlook on his recovery, mixed with the negative comments from his grandfather about his son’s illness. In all the different scenarios Varner presents, he remembers fondly, his mother, Teena, and how she silently endured, knowing the family secret.
His mother is still alive and lives in his Pennsylvania hometown. “My mother only asked that I make it clear that she urged me to write none of this,” because she felt he was picking open a scab on a wound that would never heal. “Confronting any of this is still painful for both of us,” he concluded, but said he wanted to world to understand his father was a hero, especially to him.
(Bill Duncan can be reached at email@example.com or by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470.).