Mistress of Death Review: ‘Home is Burning’ by Dan Marshall

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cover64138-mediumHome Is Burning: A Memoir
/em> is the true story of how Dan Marshall lost his father to ALS, and almost lost his mother to cancer in the process. Foul-mouthed and mostly self-involved, Dan Marshall was living a life of beginner’s luxury in Los Angeles. Madly in love with his girlfriend, Abby, and working a decent job right outside of college he felt on top of the world; that is until his father announces that those weird twinges he’s been getting in his chest were signs of ALS. As a child, Dan’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer but seemed to still be fine. Armed with that information, his multiple siblings shrug off the ALS diagnosis and assume their dad is going to be fine. Their dad is not, in fact, fine. As he begins to degrade, each sibling begins to spend time caring for their father.  Mr. Marshall rapidly loses the use of his arms and needs to be cared for 24-7. Mrs. Marshall goes back into chemotherapy after her cancer returns and begins to lose her mind from the treatment, spending most of her time eating yogurt and discussing painful childhood memories. Dan is given a guilt trip by his brother, Greg, and older sister, Tiffany, to come back home and help because their mother refuses to have her husband go to a nursing home. They jokingly call themselves “Team Terminal.” Dan takes a leave of absence from work, begins to work on long distance with Abby and moves back into his parent’s house to care for family. Soon he is changing his father’s diapers, working a wheelchair and learning how to adjust a respirator so his father doesn’t die. He is also keying in inappropriate phrases to the device his father uses to speak and drinking far too much in the basement. Dan must let go of everything he had in life previously and become one of the family caretakers to give his father the best final year possible.

While Home is Burning is written about one of the most tragic experiences a child can have with a parent, Dan Marshall is exceptionally funny when describing it. In all honesty, the only way to really combat this level of agony for a family is to counter it with humor; the Marshall family excels at this. Dan Marshall self proclaims himself to be a selfish man, and does everything in his writing to show the reader that he was painfully spoiled.  Some of my favorite exchanges in the book occur between Dan and a fictional reality, usually when he’s answering questions for other relatives and family friends. These include complete accounts of what he wanted to say, versus what he actually said. Marshall walks the tightrope of interactions while grieving, showing the reader just how destructive some of the more common platitudes about death of a loved one actually are.

Home is Burning will make you cry. It will make you call your parents right after finishing the book and ask if everything is okay. Dan Marshall will make you question your own mortality, while at the same time begin to plan for more “what ifs” in life. I deeply enjoyed the book, as well as Marshall’s casual way of expressing ideas and traumas that are usually treated with a sort of medical school textbook level of respect, instead of truthfully revealed as something terrible that happens when the human body breaks down. Dan Marshall is able to capture the emotions of loss and suffering, without losing himself entirely in the process.

I greatly enjoyed the book, but I do have a few warnings for readers. Dan Marshall’s book is LOADED with swear words, descriptions of sex, a few moments of drugs, excessive drinking and a few unkind words said about the Marshall’s Mormon neighbors. These moments do capture the suffering the family goes through, as well as the destruction grieving can leave in its path. Still, there will be some readers who will be deeply offended and frustrated by these passages.  Fans of Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniu, or basically anything of David Sedaris will feel a kinship with this book. Those who have suffered long term illness or witnessed it with family members will know what Dan Marshall means about support groups and the words of others.

Home Is Burning: A Memoir is available October 20, 2015 from Flatiron Books.

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