Block, Brett Ellen 1973–
Block, Brett Ellen 1973–
Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction, 2001, for Destination Known; Michener-Copernicus fellowship, 2003; University of Michigan, Hopwood Prize and 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.
The Lightning Rule (novel), William Morrow (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to literary journals, including Sonora Review, Mid-American Review, and Red Cedar Review, and to anthologies.
Brett Ellen Block is a New Jersey native whose first collection of stories won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction. The characters 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 in 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 2004 book, The Grave of God's Daughter, is set in her mother's childhood home in western Pennsylvania. Block noted 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 area, 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 local 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."
In her 2006 novel, The Lightning Rule, Block delves into the Newark, New Jersey, race riots of 1967. She tells her second novel from the point of view of a rookie white detective in a primarily black precinct. The detective, Martin Emmett, dropped out of the seminary to become a cop and is now caring for his Vietnam veteran brother, who was paralyzed by a sniper's bullet. After a botched attempt at solving his first murder case, Emmett is given a second chance—investigating the death of a young black man. Emmett soon discovers that he is on the trail of a serial killer with racial motivations, yet his investigations become complicated not only by the riots, but also by corrupt fellow officers. USA Today reviewer Carol Memmott called The Lightning Rule an "expertly plotted novel that reminds us that human nature never changes." A Publishers Weekly contributor praised the "flawless historical backdrop [that] underpins" Block's novel. Similarly, a Kirkus Reviews critic commended the "gritty, historically rich narrative" of this novel and dubbed it "many cuts above the typical police procedural."
On her Web site, Block shared one of the reasons she became a writer: "Writing is what brings me the most satisfaction. I love feeling a new concept for a book crystallize in my mind or hearing a snippet of conversation and knowing I'm going to work it into my next project."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2004, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 1136; September 1, 2006, Allison Block, review of The Lightning Rule, p. 60.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of Destination Known, p. 1452; March 1, 2004, review of The Grave of God's Daughter, p. 92; August 1, 2006, review of The Lightning Rule, p. 737.
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; September 18, 2006, review of The Lightning Rule, p. 34.
USA Today, December 21, 2006, Carol Memmott, review of The Lightning Rule, p. 6.
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."
Brett Ellen Block Home Page,http://www.brettellenblock.com (April 6, 2007).
MySpace,http://www.myspace.com/brettellenblock (April 6, 2007), "Brett Ellen Block."