Robert Root begins Happenstance by explaining his plan for the memoir: “to write about one hundred days of my childhood in the next one hundred days of my age, to capture one hundred recollections of the past over one hundred days of the future.” On the eleventh day, however, his father died, and Root shelved the project for four years, until one of his creative writing students told the story about the chance meeting of his parents, prompted by a fly ball at a summer softball game. Haunted by the realization that numerous instances of happenstance had conspired to create this event, Root resumed researching family records, photo albums, and items he identifies as “literary remains.” The result is not so much a nonfiction narrative, as he writes in a guest blog post on Michael J. Steinberg’s site, but “the prose equivalent of a medieval polyptych, a multi-paneled altarpiece, especially since it is also full of photographs.”
Root masterfully weaves together three strands of narrative—the Hundred Days vignettes, the photographs, and the nature of happenstance versus the nature of choice—to create a vivid portrayal of his family in a small American town during the years following World War II. He recounts many turning points in his and others’ lives, speculating which events were deliberate choices and which were happenstance, which occurs when, “We find ourselves in circumstances we didn’t predict or produce but which influence our behavior or limit our options or change the course of our lives.”
Hoping the book will enlighten his children as to the circumstances that created his identity, Root’s Hundred Days entries describe events of his childhood, having been the firstborn of a couple separated shortly after marriage when his father was stationed overseas in World War II. He reveals his and his family members’ actions, decisions, happenstances, reactions, and secrets through a lens of remarkable compassion. For example, when Root learns, after his mother’s death, that his younger sister was fathered by a man his mother had an affair with while his father was serving in the war, he empathizes with the young woman who was left to fend for herself as a single mother for the first three years of marriage. Emotionally detached from his father, Root never discusses this family secret with him, but he gains appreciation for the man whose sense of responsibility convinced him to stay with his wife and raise the child as his own. His tone remains compassionate, even when revealing his mother’s many ignoble, duplicitous deeds—the affair, lying in order to have her second marriage annulled, and conniving with her mother to borrow money without his father’s knowledge. Despite Root’s capacious compassion, his mother eventually loses her son’s good will. Immediately after her death, Root realizes that she lied to his father for years, convincing him to work three jobs to pay for Root’s college expenses, while she took the money for herself and her son struggled to pay back enormous student loans. As testimony to his recently acquired admiration for his father, Root spares his father’s pride and never shares this revelation with him and declares, “I would not forgive my mother for this betrayal.”
Root examines family photographs like a detective searching for clues. He notes the quality of focus and light, the expressions on faces, the reasons for particular groupings, and the reasons for someone’s absence from the frame. His close reading and interpretation are aided by the knowledge he’s acquired since first viewing or posing for these photographs. With his careful attention to detail, a photograph of a casual outing becomes a study in family dynamics. Perhaps his sister is absent from the photo simply because she was the photographer, or perhaps her absence represents something deeper, like the chasm growing between their parents.
Root recounts his decision to write about the hundred days in the order that he remembers them, the first depicting him running home one afternoon after a day in elementary school. He describes the sights he encountered between school and home, the vivid details perhaps imprinted on his memory because of his heightened emotional state that day, which he describes as “exuberant.” Throughout Happenstance, he laments experiencing this feeling of exuberance only once in his life. Having written the book in part as an attempt to explain his own identity, he ends with a story about visiting his children, playing with his grandchildren, making up stories with them. He writes:
So is this my identity at last, the man writing with his grandsons? It was mere happenstance that I would have such moments with them so close together, though perhaps my choices made them possible.
Describing the joy of spending time in the children’s worlds, he writes, “And while I was there, I felt exuberant.”