Disaster Falls is a difficult book. No matter how well written, it is still the story of a family learning to live again after losing a child. At the end of July, 2008, the Gerson family, Stéphane, Alison, Julian, and Owen, went on a rafting trip on the Green River. It was one of those professional guide trips for families with children seven and up. Owen was eight. Halfway through the day, he looked back at his dad from the front of the inflatable kayak they were in and said “This is the best day of my life.” Not long after, he was dead, drowned in a tragic accident.
That night, Stéphane, Alison, and Julian, their older son, huddled in a tent in the rain, isolated from the other rafters, waiting for morning so they could continue on to a river exit and leave. Alison said that night, “We cannot do it alone. We have to stick together.” and somehow they did, in spite of how grief usually atomizes a family.
They grieved in their own ways and Gerson’s way of grieving was to write and to research, reading the words of people throughout history who lost children, learning everything he could about the Green River and Disaster Falls where his son died. He wanted to write down every memory of Owen’s life. For Alison, it was activity, never stopping. For Julian, it was a lot of things, including reminding his parents he was grieving, too.
During this time, Gerson traveled with his father, Berl, and Julian to Belarus, where their family came from. They could not see where their family lived, it was all destroyed in the war, but they did see the monument to the Jews murdered by the Nazis, their family memorialized, the ones who did not escape. Shortly after, Gerson’s father died of cancer. His death was in all ways the opposite of Owen’s, at the end of a long life, expected and even planned, as he chose euthanasia when the pain became too much.
Gerson writes with precision. He is an historian and the historian’s dedication to honesty is there in every page. He does not spare himself. Every word is considered and deliberate, so the writing is sharp and true. He wants to get it right, not so much for himself, but for Owen. To give an example of the kind of stark, brutal honesty that he puts himself through, he confesses to feeling a sense of comfort from those memorials to the Holocaust dead, where “those who had failed to save loved ones did not necessarily live in shame or guilt.”
He writes about the accident in fits and starts, as though accumulating the strength to face it. When he does get to that awful moment when they capsize and are caught in the force of the rapids, he writes honestly about the force and confusion. He blames himself for not being able to reach his son, as though love should have overruled the physics of distance and momentum and made him superhuman.
Disaster Falls is a perfect title, not only is it the cruelly appropriate name for the place where Owen died, but it is what happened. Disaster fell on this family.
Disaster Falls is more than a book about grief and dying. It is a book about living, about coping and not coping, about moving on without leaving behind, of how absence becomes a presence in itself. It is not, though, a self-help book. Gerson is not trying to give us answers or tell us how we must mourn. Just the opposite, he makes clear there is no one way to mourn. This is the well-crafted, meticulous story of his family, his experience as a grieving father, his struggle with feeling as though he failed.
It is a beautiful book, one that I found hard to put down, though I often had to because I was crying. This was not the best time for me to read this book, just a month after my sister died while I weep as easily as breathing. But you will cry, how can you not? Owen was a lovely boy, he died, they mourn, and as human beings, we imagine their pain and mourn as well.
Gerson wrote this book for several reasons. To fill an emptiness with story, to create something enduring out of that loss, It is also an effort to overturn the banal assumptions about that loss. People say it is unendurable, but they endured. Gerson has the rational mind that recognizes that losing a child is not unimaginable, it happens. He also rejects the idea that no one can understand their loss. He wrote this book so people can understand, and he succeeds.
Disaster Falls will be released January 24th, 2017. I received an ARC from the publisher through a drawing on LibraryThing.