Friday, August 5, 2011

Alex: The Life of a Child - You must read this!

Earlier this evening I finished reading an extraordinary book. It was moving, lyrical, funny, heartbreaking, instructive, inspirational, and wise. The book is Alex: The Life of a Child, by Frank Deford. Yes, that Frank Deford – the Frank Deford you might have read for years in Sports Illustrated or the Frank Deford that you’ve heard since late 1981 on National Public Radio. He’s also written novels and screenplays and essays and just about anything you can imagine.

In 1971, Frank and his wife welcomed a daughter into their home. She lived for another 8 years. She had cystic fibrosis, a disease that was not nearly as well known then as it is now. (Part of why it’s as well known as it is now is because Deford wrote this magnificent book.)

The book is notable for many reasons, but one of the things that stands out to me is that Deford manages to tell this painful and heart aching tale in a voice that is breezy, casual, and familiar. It is as if a favorite uncle is telling you a difficult story but his sense of humor and perspective is always intact. Deford obviously loved (loves) his little Alexandra, Alex, but he never falls into the maudlin and never succumbs to self-pity. The story is rich in detail and wrenching emotion, but always rendered with a deft, light touch.

This is creative nonfiction at its best.

I recognize that some folks wince at the term “creative nonfiction,” but if you read this book you might wince a little less. This is a book of nonfiction to be sure. And it has been rendered beautifully, lovingly through the techniques that our greatest fiction writers employ.

Deford is a master storyteller, and he is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve when that’s what the story requires. While attending the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference last month, I had the good fortune to hear Deford speak and to briefly meet him. The man is no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, AND bring your craft to bear. In other words, he’s a writer. He’s a writer’s writer.

Alex: The Life of a Child is a slim volume, weighing in at just slightly more than 200 pages, but it packs a powerful emotional punch and it contains a story about love and loving that any person can benefit from experiencing. Deford’s little girl Alex had an enormous impact in her eight short years of life – impact on many people beyond just her immediate family, and reading this book is a potent reminder of the potential we all have to make a difference in the world, to make an impact.

I recommend this book without reservation. It is beautifully written and the story contained within is simply and truthfully, heartbreaking and lovely.