Schreiber's humor is at its peak in describing the stray cat she adopted even though she "was not, as they say, a cat person." Her first impression of the animal, she writes, was that "he was large, dirty, smelly, carnivorous and, to judge by his entrance, pushy." When she petted him, her palm "returned black and smelling like an NBA locker room." (Before fleeing to the country, Schreiber was the first female editor of the New York Times sports section.)
A series of adventures and misadventures between author and cat, clearly allegorical, all described with humor and insight, follow — including the arrow shot through the feline "shoulder to shoulder" during one of his roamings. Ultimately, as with the land, Schreiber and the cat, named Sebastian — in homage to the martyred saint who suffered at the hands of arrow-wielding pagans — reach an understanding.
It's at moments like these, when one is lulled by a Sebastian who spends much of his time curled up on the sofa, "going outdoors only for brief inspection tours of the nearest reaches of his territory," that Schreiber chooses to hit the reader with the fact that this is, after all, a memoir. "My brother died in October," she writes, shifting abruptly from the sleeping feline, "five years to the day after our mother's death, three years to the month after our father's. I am stripped clean of family."
But Sebastian isn't through with his lessons for Schreiber, and not long after, she writes of the stray, "It seems we are wed to this repetition, each the other's link to this cycle of loss and recovery. In these years, I have come to rely upon his capacity for survival, his power to transform my fear of ending into an anticipation of spring."
Schreiber is also perceptive enough to know that Sebastian now plays a unique role in Ancram "where 'newcomers' remain newcomers for two generations, at which point they achieve the status of 'relative newcomers.'" She was first known as "the lady who bought Mary Jane's house," and since Mary Jane had preceded Schreiber in town by 94 years, the author sensed an "unavoidable undertone to the phrase, as if it were a euphemism for 'dispossessor.'" However, once the arrow affair put Sebastian on the front page of the local paper, Schreiber became "the lady with the cat with the arrow."
Part one of the memoir ends with the author's moving description of casting her father's ashes into the water. "I felt a deep sadness that brought tears to my eyes, which added their slight flow to the stream that was carrying my father's ashes to places perhaps more distant than I can imagine. But I also felt a powerful wave of relief rising and cresting with me. I had fulfilled my promise, and my reward was a sudden explosion within me of all the love that was contained in its making."
It is not until part two of the book that we learn of Le Anne Schreiber's childhood. Born in 1945, two days before "the Enola Gay made history," she lived with her parents and older brother in a tiny apartment on the third floor of a house at 1010 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. "I loved the mnemonic tom-tom beat of that perfect address," she writes, "so much easier to commit to memory than the nonsense clauses of the Nicene Creed which was our first task of learning . . . at St. Nicholas Grammar School."
The address was all she liked. "Like most families," Schreiber says, "we bided our time while the war machine changed gears. The apartment was our holding bin. Every night for six years, I was stored away in that hand-me-down crib, its barred sides only inches from the windowless walls of the dressing closet that served as my bedroom."
She describes vividly the day she and her mother walked to the almost-finished house the family had saved enough money to buy on Cleveland Street in one of the myriad postwar suburbs springing up across the United States. "I saw my mother pulse and glow with the pleasure of imminent escape. Even her stride was different, longer and faster and hard to keep up with." They had brought with them a big bottle of Windex. "As I sprayed and she wiped each of the thirty-five small panes of the grand whole that was the picture window, it felt as if we were pulling the blind forever on those dark forties and snapping it wide open on the light-filled fifties."
But Schreiber quickly discovered that "the picture window let in light, but the light did not reach the nooks and crannies of the imagination." The lessons she learned in the family's new "ranch house" (until she saw the house, she envisioned "a sprawling outpost of bunk-beds and hitching posts, with a triangle my mother would ring to call us in from the corral to dinner") would influence her many years later.