Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Fellow Denver author Janis Hallowell debuted with The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn in 2004. Though I remember seeing this captivating cover in local Tattered Cover Book Stores and hearing about Janis via Denver writing institution Lighthouse Writers, for some reason I never picked this one up. Luckily I finally did.

Francesca, a 14-year-old cellist whose divorced mom is a busy paleobotanist and whose dad is busy courting his girlfriend in Italy, ultimately becomes house-bound while followers who believe she’s a saint gather in a park across the street and fasten offerings and requests for her blessings along her home’s front fence.

The story of how Francesca and her family and friends cope with attention that at times becomes threatening is chock full of intriguing characters and symbolism and points of view as well as a plot that kept me hanging on until the last word. But I was most fascinated by Chester.

An intelligent and kind but awkward homeless man, Chester has a highly unusual sense of smell that allows him to recognize elements not only of the environment that most don’t notice, but of other people’s personalities and moods. At one point, a friend clutches at his chest just after Chester has noticed he “smelled like an overloaded fuse.” A woman who befriends him has a smell “familiar and mild, like prairie grass in the rain.” When a journalist poses as a homeless person to try to gain insights into Francesca’s growing story, Chester smells “the tang of an imposter.” A friend with a severe earache triggers “the cold aluminum smell of pain.” At one point Chester smells “the burnt starch” of someone’s anger.

From the start, Francesca smells of roses, a fact that contributes to Chester experiencing a vision that launches the campaign to canonize her. Since he’s fully aware he’s to blame for all the attention she begins to receive, Chester assumes the role as her protector that will bring him to sleep outside her house and earn the trust of her tough, doubting, and just-as-protective mom.

But when he’s eventually invited inside the house to get out of the cold or have a meal, the extent of Chester’s struggles become painfully evident. He’s been to a doctor for help, he admits, and offered pills designed to alleviate his fears that a ceiling will fall upon him while he sleeps or that “already-breathed” air in a house will suffocate him, pills that would lighten the weight on his shoulders and finally allow him to stand up straight “like a person free from doubt.” When doubt nearly consumes Chester, he finds himself back at the clinic once again, struggling with the choice of whether or not to accept such medication.

Insights into the struggles faced by the homeless are discussed throughout Annunciation. At one point Chester mentions the general belief among people on the streets that they are “valued by the medical community only as living junkers for spare parts” and that when admitted to a hospital, they’d only be treated after signing “a paper saying that if you died, you would donate your organs to science.” At another point, Chester rails inwardly after hearing a fellow homeless man has died “of natural causes.” “Was it natural for a man to be living in a wheelchair without a roof or food or family?” he asks. “Was it natural for somebody who lived on the sidewalk in front of a hospital to have an untreated infection?”

While Chester doesn’t ask these questions aloud, I can’t help but assume if they’d been voiced in 2004 they’d have been met with shrugs. With the current fever rising about universal healthcare, such questions now often lead to heated arguments. Should those who are making a living be forced to pay for the care of those who can’t?

And what about those who don’t want to be healed? One is forced to wonder about this when Chester says, “I thought of all the holy people throughout history, all the mystics and martyrs, artists and visionaries, and what the world would have been like if they’d all been given medication to make them ordinary. There would have been less suffering, no doubt about it, but I couldn’t imagine a world without saints and madmen.”

What follows in Chester’s world deserves to be discovered in a full reading of the novel so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say the decision of whether or not to go on medication for a mental condition is a decision with which many struggle. The high costs of treatment and meds represent a top concern and another significant reason why our current healthcare system must somehow be fixed. But other questions exist, too: Is such medication really good for me? Shouldn’t I be able to cope without it? Do I really want to support an industry that seems determined to put everyone on at least some sort of prescription drug?

As someone who’s been on a prescription antidepressant for two years now, I can attest to the fact that the answers to these questions can be impossible to fully reconcile. Yet, they need to be addressed when depression or anxiety impacts one’s ability to function. It took me years to realize my behavior as a stressed-out parent of young children was not just par for the course; that there was more going on in my brain than personality quirks that led to unreasonable and potentially dangerous outbursts; that my children deserved a mom who, while still easily irritated, isn’t so close to the boiling point most mornings that by mid-day someone in the house is going to be screaming at someone else. So I took the chance that a newer med with limited side effects would help me, and I’m still glad I did. But it certainly isn’t cheap, and I worry about the many whose lives…and families…would benefit even more from such help, if only they could afford it. As Chester would say, that’s just not natural. Frankly, I also think it’s just not right.

This post is dedicated to Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), whose life work not only helped millions of mentally and physically handicapped children and their families around the world (and will continue to do so far into the future), but dispelled significant age-old stigmas associated with disabilities of all kinds and advocated ongoing efforts to alleviate the suffering of those impacted by them.