Review: Happenstance by Robert Root

Review by Angel Ackerman

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Happenstance-robert-rootRobert Root approaches the reconstruction of his childhood past and his observations of the relationships of those around him with the methods of the literary academic he is. His memoir, Happenstance (Sightline Books/University of Iowa Press, 2013, 241 pages), uses analysis of old family photographs as the jump off point for his memories and contemplations on how 20th century Americana and his parents’ unorthodox marriage(s) molded his life.

The setting for more than three-quarters of the book is small town Lockport, N.Y. Root’s father worked as a well-liked, successful salesman who provided what feels like a typical 1950s/1960s modest upbringing for his children. His parents married after high school. Root himself was conceived on his parents’ honeymoon. His father shipped out to World War II.

The story veers from the expected standard when Root casually mentions the birth of his sister, when his father hadn’t been home and equally casually mentions his parents’ divorce. The children (including a second son born legitimately after the elder Root’s return from war) never knew until after their mother’s death her unfaithfulness, and Root’s father always accepted the daughter that resulted as his own.

Root appears to mine these events for their significance in his own failed first marriage, his delight in his own children (which suffered during the strain of ending things with his first wife), and his successful second marriage which created that “blended” family that his mother never achieved. There is other family deceit and manipulation, but Root minimizes the impact of this as he focuses on the relationship theme.

To me, a memoir typically strings together memories and events as the author pinpoints what he/she feels are the key ingredients of their character. Root’s focus on relationships creates a structure where his character-driven sections are enjoyable but strangely out-of-place. In the end, he brings it all together by explaining how all these bits drive him to the place where he is today— a love of cinema bringing him to the books that inspired the films, the prolific reading habit and a girlfriend in teachers’ college leading him to a job as an English teacher, which eventually required him to earn a masters which dropped him into academia.

It’s the story of a mellow, introverted child who through one happenstance to another finds his way.


Anyone who has an interest in the complexity of long-term relationships and divorce and how the relationships of our parents influence the people we become


3 out of 5 stars

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