At the age of 88, Studs Terkel has created an inspirational and philosophical book. Its universal theme is summed up in the subtitle: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Despite the apparently grim subject, Terkel succeeds again in capturing large truths from many individual voices and making the ordinary sound extraordinary.
The death in 1999 of Ida, his wife and companion for sixty years, caused the author to share his grief with friends and strangers in various walks of life. Terkel discovered that everybody had similar feelings about deceased loved ones. As his main title–Will the Circle Be Unbroken?–indicates, he began to wonder about the hereafter and what remains for the living.
Terkel himself has known how a serious illness can affect one's lifestyle. Several years ago, he had a quintuple bypass. How did he handle it? First, by continuing to obtain the best medical treatment and, second, by not giving in to fear and depression and continuing to work at his profession–broadcasting and writing books. He maintained his interest in all the arts–especially music. And to stay young, he kept old friendships and developed new ones with young people. He was a fixture at Riccardo's, a newspaperman's hangout, and visitors to Chicago, his hometown, always seemed to bump into him. He was easily spotted, wearing his checked red shirt and walking the streets as if he owned the town, greeting and being greeted by acquaintances and strangers, barflies and big shots.
His modest, self-prescribed Rx for life emerges in this and in his other oral histories: Keep going, expose hypocrisy, especially in government, and be an outspoken advocate of truth and progressive ideas.
In a lively introduction that reveals his literary knowledge, Terkel writes that some thirty years ago, Gore Vidal suggested death as a subject for a book. "I stared into my drink. No bells rang. My works had been concerned with life and its uncertainties rather than death and its indubitable certainty."
And Terkel goes on to explain what he has aimed to do in his series of oral histories:
In all my books, my informants–mostly the uncelebrated, heroes of the "ordinary"–had recounted, in their own words, the lives they had lived, the epochs they had survived. How did it feel to be a certain person in a certain circumstance at a certain time in our country's twentieth century? During the Great American Depression, what was it like to be that 12-year-old boy seeing his father trudge home at eleven in the morning with his toolchest over his shoulder only to become an idler for the next ten years? During World War II, what was it like to be the mama's boy sitting tight in that landing craft crossing the English Channel, heading for Normandy?… These were challenges I could handle, for better or worse.
His new book includes stories by a cross section of Americans: doctors, emergency-room nurses, a homicide detective, a former death-row inmate, a Hiroshima victim, a Vietnam veteran, a pastor, a priest, a rabbi, a lawyer, a church worker, a teacher, a journalist, a musician, a folk singer, fathers, mothers, sons–survivors and mourners. Only a few of the people have familiar names: Kurt Vonnegut, fellow author; Uta Hagen, actress; William Warfield, singer; Haskell Wexler, cinematographer; Vine Deloria, writer and teacher.