Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: "Son of a Gun: A Memoir" by Justin St. Germain

In Tombstone, Arizona, near the site of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a plaque commemorating Frank and Tom McLaury, brothers who died in the gun battle. It says, "One owes respect to the living. But to the dead, one owes nothing but the truth."

In September 2001, Justin St. Germain's mother, Debbie, was shot to death in a trailer in Tombstone, apparently by her fifth husband. Debbie, her many relationships, and her murder were fodder for gossip among Tombstone's residents, and her death was also sensationalized by the media ("A real-life Old West murder mystery," one news network commented). But for Justin and his older brother, Josh, Debbie's murder leaves them with painful memories, unresolved emotions, and lots of questions.

Justin tries to understand why his mother, an intelligent, independent, feisty, former Army paratrooper, would enter into so many relationships with unstable men who abused her physically and emotionally, and some who even abused her sons. Why would she continue to repeat the same patterns over and over again, knowing she could never change these men, and probably inherently realizing she was on a self-destructive path? Why would a woman so fiercely loyal to her sons, willing to sacrifice everything for them, resign herself to her own unhappiness and potential harm?

For a number of years after his mother's death, Justin tries to build a new life for himself in San Francisco, away from the town where he spent most of his childhood watching and experiencing her dangerous relationships. But even after finding a woman he wants to settle down with, he can't get his mother's murder off his mind. He can't sleep without a gun or other weapon under his bed for comfort. And he still can't seem to get the closure he so desperately needs.

With no other recourse available, Justin returns to Tombstone to try and make some sense of the woman his mother was and the men she married. He meets with his former stepfathers to try and understand their relationships with Debbie, and tries to determine whether everyone missed the warning signs that could have prevented her death. And at the same time, Justin tries to resolve his own feelings for his mother, a woman he simultaneously loved and resented for putting him into so many volatile situations with so many men.

Son of a Gun is a very moving account of a young man's search for answers he probably knows he'll never find. Interspersed with some historical facts about Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, the book accurately describes the range of emotions felt after a loved one is murdered. This is quite compelling—you want everything to be resolved, to know what happened, even as you know it's impossible. Justin St. Germain is a very talented writer, and I hope that he'll continue writing in the future.

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