Block, Brett Ellen
BLOCK, Brett Ellen
PERSONAL: Born in NJ. Education: Graduate of Iowa Writers' Workshop and University of East Anglia fiction-writing program.
AWARDS, HONORS: Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction, 2001, for Destination Known; Michener-Copernicus fellowship; University of Michigan Hopwood Prize; Haugh Prize.
Destination Known (stories), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2001.
The Grave of God's Daughter (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to literary journals, including Sonora Review, Mid-American Review, and Red Cedar Review, and to anthologies.
SIDELIGHTS: Brett Ellen Block is a New Jersey native whose first collection of stories won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction. The people in the dozen stories of Destination Known are drifters and other people on the move. Michael Porter observed in the New York Times Book Review that Block catches them "in midflight, when a moment's hesitation or a step in a different direction makes all the difference in the world." The title story finds a woman alone in a new city, hoping to escape the past and a broken heart. When she chases down a driver who smashes into a parked car, she discovers an elderly woman caught in a state of confusion. In "Edith Drogan's Uncle Is Dead," a man reluctantly returns home, where he relives painful memories from his past. The last story of the collection, "In the City of the Living," finds a young man on his way to Memphis to attend college.
A Publishers Weekly critic felt that "Block's writing is something of an acquired taste, but readers interested in exploring life's dark, dangerous corners will find an intriguing array of ideas and situations here." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that Block's tales contain "much of the gloom but a shade less doom than the hard-bitten noir fiction these stories resemble," and called the author "a writer worth watching."
Block's The Grave of God's Daughter is set in her mother's childhood home of western Pennsylvania. Block notes in BookPage.com that as she stared at her blank computer screen, looking for the inspiration to begin her first novel, she asked her mother if there were any unusual stories that she could recall from her youth. Her mother remembered a rumor about a priest whose body had been buried in a potter's field, but added that no one ever discussed the reasons for this type of burial. "The forbidden quality of the secret surrounding the priest intrigued me," said Block. "I tried to imagine what he could have done that would prohibit him from being buried in consecrated ground, and that was where the root of the story took hold." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the debut novel "sort of a Polish-American Peyton Place: a touching portrait of childhood innocence on a collision course with worldly experience."
The unnamed narrator of the novel is a twelve-year-old girl who looks after her seven-year-old brother, Martin, while her parents are away. Her father works the night shift at the mill, one of the two large employers in Hyde Bend, the other being a chemical plant, and her mother cleans and cooks for the priest. Their conflicting work schedules help them avoid each other while still functioning as a family, which is, like the majority of the Polish-Catholic families in the town, very poor. The only person of means is Swatka Pani, who owns most of the apartments in the town.
The narrator begins noticing that items, including her mother's painting, the "Black Madonna," are disappearing from their home, and the girl guesses that her mother is pawning them in order to raise money. The young girl convinces the butcher to give her a delivery job, and he agrees, providing her with a hat and pants so that she can work as a boy. The girl now has access to most of the homes in town and begins to learn more about her community and her family, including some dark secrets. She comes to know the town eccentric, a woman whose son, a priest, committed suicide soon after becoming the leader of the local parish, and it is this woman who tells her the truth when Swatka Pani is murdered.
A Publishers Weekly writer called Block's prose "intoxicating" and said that "her ability to uncover the shadowy, dangerous heart of a wartime mill town is just as impressive."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2004, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 1136.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of Destination Known, p. 1452; March 1, 2004, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 92.
Library Journal, March 1, 2004, Reba Leiding, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 106.
New York Times Book Review, January 6, 2002, Michael Porter, review of Destination Known, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, October 15, 2001, review of Destination Known, p. 47; March 22, 2004, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 61.
BookPage.com,http://www.bookpage.com/ (July 7, 2004), Brett Ellen Block, "Threads of a Mother's Memories Weave the Fabric of a Debut Novel."*