The Bookworm: Tales of heartache, woe and survival

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of Appalachia”

By Jennifer McGaha

c. 2018, Sourcebooks

$15.99, higher in Canada; 368 pages

It could never happen to you. Other people have problems. They don’t plan, they don’t act, they aren’t paying attention and that leads to issues they can’t deal with. That kind of thing happens to other people. In the new book “Flat Broke with Two Goats” by Jennifer McGaha, it can’t happen to you – until it does.

After the mailman bounced his way up a mile-long, rutted mud driveway to hand Jennifer McGaha a registered envelope, she didn’t want to open it. She knew what was inside. It was confirmation for something that had already happened: her beautiful, sun-filled, large-kitchened house in North Carolina was already in the process of being foreclosed upon.

“Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of  Appalachia ” author Jennifer McGaha.

The nightmare started with a bad economy: as neighbors and clients lost jobs, they stopped needing McGaha’s husband’s accounting expertise. Because of home repairs and private school tuition for the McGaha’s three children, there was little money for savings. And when McGaha heard her husband crying into his pillow in the middle of one night, things became worse: they were in debt to the IRS for a lot of money – as in, almost-mid-six-figures.

Possible jail-term aside, McGaha was stunned and terrified. She’d grown up never having to worry about money. Now, the worry never left her mind and she considered walking away from it all, but her youngest son was still in high school. With few options left, the family moved to the only place they could afford: a lush valley with a snake-and-mice-infested, half-rotted ramshackle cabin with no internet, no cable TV, spotty cell phone reception, and a boiler for making hot water. Adding insult to injury, McGaha lost three beloved elderly relatives in quick succession.

“Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of  Appalachia ” by Jennifer McGaha.

Bereft and grieving, she took a job out-of-state and contemplated staying in Illinois but she couldn’t: home was in North Carolina. So was her heart, a penitent husband, family, chickens, eventually goats and, eventually, a decision: in thinking about her old life and yesterday’s actions, says McGaha: “I choose this.”

There but for the grace …

You may say that a time or two or 10 as you’re reading “Flat Broke with Two Goats” – and for good reason: statistics say that more than half of our neighbors are uncomfortably close to the first part of its title.

For sure, author Jennifer McGaha tells a lip-biting story that starts out bad and grows worse, as tragedy piles on top of hardship stacks on humiliation. If you’re rolling your eyes, though, stop: while McGaha abundantly writes of the pain of loss and the turmoil in her emotions, she takes her share of responsibility here. She also admits how she almost didn’t do even that. The anxiety is almost like putty, it’s so thick.

By the time you get to the section of this book that contains both a sense of uneasy relief and droll humor, you’ll be wrung out and ready for it, especially if your imagination follows along.  You’ll be alarmed, breathless, and ultimately charmed by “Flat Broke with Two Goats” because yes, it could happen to you …

“Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story”

By Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta

c. 2018, W.W. Norton

$25.95, $34.95 Canada; 207 pages

You only have two hands. That’s all and when they’re full, you’re done. You can’t hold more items, pick up more work, or take on additional anything. Two hands, that’s all you have to offer but in the new book “Tears of Salt” by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, you can also offer your heart.

Lampedusa, a tiny island just off the coast of Italy, has always been where Pietro Bartolo feels the most at home. It is, after all, where his parents came when they married. It’s where Bartolo brought his own bride, where his three children were born – and it’s the current site of his clinic and the first port of call for refugees fleeing terrorism in Somalia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria and Nigeria.

“Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story” author Pietro Bartolo.

There’s an odd inconsistency between a beautiful island surrounded by crystal seas and the misery of those who wash ashore. Long before the refugee crisis began, Lampedusa was quietly idyllic; today, it’s still a place frequented by wealthy vacationers, Popes, and statesmen but also by corpses and people who are gravely injured.

Bartolo is proud of the former, dismayed and overwhelmed by the latter. He gets constant calls to come to work, to meet rescue boats on the pier, to deal with refugee trauma in both mind and body. His wife runs a laboratory, and she’s often called, too. Like fellow villagers, they’ve taken in refugees who required extra care. Even that, he indicates, can break his heart.

“Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story” by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta.

So many things do.

He knows why some female refugees beg him to abort the babies they carry, fathered by soldiers of war. He’s seen the bravery of mothers who hand their children to strangers to save. He’s observed families torn apart, and some reunited. A paralyzed mother begged for a job, so that she might bring her family to Europe. Women are preyed upon by traffickers. Toddlers die. A 10-year-old boy refused to cry over his father, who was killed by Boko Haram.

Says Bartolo: “You can wear all the protective gear you like, but you cannot protect your soul.”

Have we become inured to tragedy?  Author Pietro Bartolo (with Lidia Tilotta) is afraid we have, so when offered the opportunity to become the subject of a short movie, he seized upon it to call attention to the plight of the refugees. That story, and more, are inside “Tears of Salt.”

But before you start, be prepared to get pretty darned uncomfortable. Although he might often temper his tales with lovely barefoot-childhood memories of a village filled with people who care for one another, Bartolo doesn’t hold back from the horror he’s seen, or the things his patients have endured to find a better life. Beware that some anecdotes are downright gruesome. He tells … and tells … and tells stories that beg to be shouted from the cliffs, making this a book that may never become a bestseller but for compassionate readers concerned with current events, it’s a must-read.

If that’s you, find “Tears of Salt.” Get it in your hands.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.