Bohjalian, Chris 1960- (Christopher A. Bohjalian)
Bohjalian, Chris 1960- (Christopher A. Bohjalian)
Born August 12, 1960, in White Plains, NY; son of Aram (an advertising executive) and Annalee (a homemaker) Bohjalian; married Victoria Blewer (a photographer and artist), October 13, 1984; children: Grace. Education: Amherst College, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1982. Politics: "I imagine I have some. Generally, I vote Democratic." Religion: Episcopalian.
Home—Lincoln, VT. Agent—Jane Gelfman, Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents, 250 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10107; Arlynn Greenbaum, Authors Unlimited, 31 E. 32nd St., Ste. 300, New York, NY 10016. E-mail—[email protected]
Burlington Free Press, Burlington, VT, book critic, beginning 1987, "Idyll Banter" columnist, 1992—; Vermont Life magazine, Montpelier, VT, book critic, beginning 1991; freelance journalist and novelist. New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf, faculty member, 1991-92.
PEN, Phi Beta Kappa.
A Killing in the Real World, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1988.
Hangman, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1991.
Past the Bleachers, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1992.
Water Witches, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1995.
Midwives, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Law of Similars, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Trans-Sister Radio, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Buffalo Soldier, Shaye Areheart Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Before You Know Kindness, Shaye Areheart Books (New York, NY), 2004.
The Double Bind, Shaye Areheart Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of Chris Bohjalian Web log. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Boston Globe Magazine.
Past the Bleachers was adapted for a Hallmark television movie in 1995; Midwives was adapted for the stage by Dana Yeaton, 2000, and by Lifetime cable channel for a TV movie.
Chris Bohjalian has published a number of critically acclaimed novels, including Midwives and The Double Bind. "The people in Bohjalian's novels are confronted with domestic tragedies and professional crises; many of his works focus on the aftermath of dramatic loss," observed Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Booth Austin. "Bohjalian's works explore the ways in which social controversies play themselves out in the domestic arena."
Bohjalian published his first novel, a mystery titled A Killing in the Real World, in 1988, and followed that with Hangman, a ghost story. His third work, Past theBleachers, which deals with a couple grieving for their eight-year-old son who died of leukemia, became a Hallmark television movie in 1995.
A Publishers Weekly reviewer characterized Water Witches, Bohjalian's fourth book, as "a moving, life-affirming novel suffused with ecological wisdom." The plot centers on a Vermont ski lodge that wants to develop the wilderness that surrounds it. Environmentalists oppose the development, among them local residents who are the "witches" of the title (modern-day dowsers who can find underground water with a forked stick). Bohjalian's protagonist and narrator, Scott Winston, is a transplanted New York lawyer who represents the interests of the developers. As Scott becomes more aware of the situation and is affected by the New England environment, however, his allegiance begins to shift. "With wit, insight and mordant irony," the Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Bohjalian charts Scott's metamorphosis from rationalistic materialist and skeptic to one who believes in higher powers and the interconnectedness of all life." Janet St. John, writing in Booklist, also praised Water Witches, observing that "Bohjalian manages … to retain a proper distance from his characters so that they become believable, realistic, and human without submitting to the author's political correctness."
Bohjalian's Midwives was selected by talk-show host and book-club maven Oprah Winfrey as one of her book-club picks. Again set in Vermont, the book tells the story of Sibyl Dansforth, an experienced midwife who performs a caesarean section on a woman who has stopped breathing to save her unborn infant. However, it turns out that the woman may not have been dead at the time, and Sibyl must go on trial for involuntary manslaughter. "The description of the nightmarish Caesarean … is harrowing; it is also the book's most effective passage," related Suzanne Berne for the New York Times Book Review. Narrated as a remembrance by Sibyl's grown daughter, an obstetrician, the novel details the course of Sibyl's trial and the inevitable conflicts it raises between midwifery and the mainstream medical community. Reba Leiding of Library Journal praised Bohjalian as a "thorough writer," noting that the book is filled "with information about pregnancy and childbirth, and the characters are well developed, especially Sibyl and her trial lawyer." Michelle Green of People called Midwives "a superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful novel." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "readers will find themselves mesmerized by the irresistible momentum of the narrative and by Bohjalian's graceful and lucid, irony-laced prose."
In a BookBrowse interview, Bohjalian commented: "I interviewed over sixty-five people while researching Midwives, including (of course) a great many midwives, nurse-midwives, and parents who'd had their children at home. That research was instrumental in all the ‘birth’ stories in the book, and in the development of the characters and their language." It was after the publication of Midwives that Bohjalian—until then a fairly obscure writer—got the call from Oprah Winfrey telling him she'd picked his novel for her book club. "I understood two things right away. All of a sudden I was on the same short list of writers of the caliber of Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Alice Hoffman (all previous Oprah choices). I also understood that Midwives was going to sell a lot more copies, and it was the greatest professional blessing I could have," he told Grand Rapids Press reporter Curt Schleier.
In The Law of Similars, Bohjalian further explores the central theme of Midwives, the conflict between traditional and alternative forms of medicine. Homeopath Carissa Lake treats Vermont deputy state attorney Leland Fowler for asthma. Leland is not only cured, he is attracted to Carissa, the first woman he has been drawn to since the death of his wife. But when one of Carissa's patients dies and the man's wife demands a criminal investigation of Carissa, Leland must face the ethical conflict of whether or not he can fairly prosecute a woman with whom he is falling in love. The Law of Similars drew a considerably less enthusiastic response from critics than Midwives. According to Pam Lambert of People: "Unlike Midwives … which builds to a wrenching courtroom climax, this book ends with a disappointing whimper." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that the immorality of some of Leland's actions undercut his appeal as a protagonist. Liz Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found the characterizations flat compared to those in Midwives but concluded that, "despite its flaws, The Law of Similars is fast-paced and absorbing."
Bohjalian subsequently produced two more novels that explore the edges of what is acceptable societally: Trans-Sister Radio and The Buffalo Soldier. The first, as Erica Jacobson wrote in the Burlington Free Press, "introduces school teacher Allison Banks, her teen-age daughter, her ex-husband and the man who loves her while on his way to surgically becoming a woman." Reviewing Trans-Sister Radio in the Brisbane Sunday Mail, Robyn Garner noted: "There are dramatic changes in store for all—some expected, some coming out of left field—but they are approached with a refreshing level of honesty and integrity. All credit must go to Chris Bohjalian for this sensitively handled, thought-provoking piece of fiction. Fans of his earlier books … will not be surprised to hear that there is nothing camp, overplayed or remotely stereotyped in his portrayal of Dana." According to Lambda Book Report contributor Susan Branch Smith, readers "will find a page-turner that sheds a mainstream light on a well-hidden part of America. And all of us can take hope from the life that Dana makes for herself in the face of intolerance and change." "All of my books, at least my good ones, are fictional memoirs," Bohjalian told Jacobson. "It's an individual chronicling the seminal event in her life." Jacobson added: "For every hour [Bohjalian] spends writing, he spends another researching everything from school board meetings to state's attorneys. He interviewed at least thirty-five people for Trans-Sister Radio, traveled to Colorado to spend time with people going through gender re-assignment surgery and sent the manuscript to [a woman] doctor … who specializes in sex changes as well as once having been a man herself."
The Buffalo Soldier is a first departure from Bohjalian's fictional memoir format. He writes it in the third person, with different sections in the voices of different characters. The book, again set in a Vermont town, centers on a couple who have lost their twin daughters to a flood. Struggling to work through their grief, Laura and Terry Sheldon decide to become foster parents, since Laura is unable to have more children. Into their home and their all-white community comes Alfred Benoit, a ten-year-old African American child who has been shunted from home to home and is consequently "secretive, shell-shocked, silent," in the words of Book reviewer Paul Evans, who added: "What elevates The Buffalo Soldier … is the presence of young Alfred. As the adults in his newfound home fret, dissemble and nearly disintegrate, the boy becomes stronger and eventually comes into his own."
Alfred's coming into his own is in large part because of Laura's kindness and because, as Evans put it, "He is helped by a neighbor, an old man [named Paul Hebert] who, like Alfred, feels out of place in the community. He gives Alfred a book on the buffalo soldiers of the 1860s, black riders in the U.S. cavalry. For Alfred, those riders become dream heroes, inspirations. An experienced horseman himself, the old mentor even teaches Alfred to ride." In the meantime, the Sheldon family falls apart as Terry buries himself in his work as a state trooper and has a momentary desperate affair with a woman who becomes pregnant. Evans commented: "While Bohjalian isn't the page-turning storyteller that, say, Stephen King and Alice Hoffman are, he may be something rarer yet equally fine, a remarkably empathetic writer who cares sufficiently about his characters to invest them with genuine warmth, an almost tragic dimension that's rare in mainstream, accessible fiction. With this novel, he's again proved himself a valuable resource—an author of concern and attention."
Robin Vidimos, in a piece for the Denver Post, commented: "The Buffalo Soldier is a story that pulls at the reader's heart, but it would be nice to see Bohjalian stretch a little more. He's very good at getting into his characters' souls, but there is a sense, this time, that he could be telling a lot more about what makes them tick. He uses a combination of conflicts to drive his plot; it is tempting to wonder how the plot might have deepened if one of them, perhaps the extramarital affair, had been cut." Vidimos concluded, though, that the reader should find much to like in this latest novel, despite the fact that Bohjalian has decided to abandon quotation marks to denote speech.
Lynette Ingram, in a Tennessean book review, wrote: "Distributing the narrative among the perspectives of four major characters, Bohjalian weaves shadings of moral complexity into this richly textured novel. Interspersed with journal entries and correspondence from Captain George Rowe of the Buffalo Soldiers and his Comanche wife, the story of one family's problems expands to explore the wider concepts of unconventional alliances and reconfigured community." Seattle Times writer Nancy Pearl, however, judged that "Chris Bohjalian stumbles badly in his eighth novel … a coincidence-strewn, credulity-straining tale of a family's redemption from a devastating tragedy." Pearl found that "here even the main characters never seem fully realized, so that it is nearly impossible to feel empathy (or sympathy) for what they're going through." Philip Herter of the Boston Herald observed that "opting for a prescription of fresh air and wholesome exercise, The Buffalo Soldier raises more questions about race in America than it attempts to answer. As the novel ducks the real social issues that give it weight, it seems the author is exploiting a hot-button topic for effect. … Putting a black protagonist into an all-white town is a potentially powerful idea for a novel, but in The Buffalo Soldier it remains little more than a notion."
In a BookPage interview, Bohjalian gave a different view on the purpose of the book: "By design, The Buffalo Soldier is about multigenerational love," Bohjalian said. "I hope it illuminates the fact that friendship can transcend age." Interviewer Alden Mudge responded: "Not only does the book do that, but through the sympathetic portrayal of the widely varying perspectives of its ensemble of characters, The Buffalo Soldier sheds light on the whole question of what constitutes a family in contemporary America." Bohjalian told Mudge: "I write domestic dramas. Sometimes that term sounds pejorative, but that's not how I mean it. I write about ordinary people in what I hope are extraordinary circumstances."
Bohjalian examines another family in crisis in Before You Know Kindness. The work concerns Spencer McCullough, an animal rights activist who is accidentally shot and crippled by his twelve-year-old daughter, Charlotte, after she discovers her uncle's hunting rifle. Spencer's employer, the Federation for Animal Liberation, seizes the opportunity to promote its anti-hunting agenda, creating rifts in the McCullough family. "Bohjalian excels at getting inside each character's head with shifts of diction and perspective," noted a Publishers Weekly critic, and Booklist contributor Kristine Huntley stated that the author's "characters leap off the pages as very real, flawed, but completely sympathetic human beings."
The Double Bind, Bohjalian's tenth novel, centers on Laurel Estabrook, a young social worker who works in a Vermont homeless shelter after surviving a brutal attack years earlier. When a schizophrenic street person named Bobbie Crocker passes away, Laurel takes charge of his possessions, which include photographs of entertainers such as Chuck Berry as well as images of West Egg—Laurel's hometown and the playground of Daisy and Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. "The author employs a remarkable, and risky, conceit in this novel," observed San Antonio Express-News contributor Jennifer Roolf Laster. "The people in Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby become real again within the fictional confines of The Double Bind." Determined to learn more about Bobbie's past, Laurel visits Pamela Buchanan Marshfield, the elderly daughter of Tom and Daisy, who appears to harbor a deep secret. Writing in Library Journal, Joy Humphrey called The Double Bind "a complex exploration of the human psyche and its efforts to heal and survive," and a critic in Kirkus Reviews wrote: "Conflating literary lore, photographic analysis and meditations on homelessness and mental illness, Bohjalian produces his best and most complex fiction yet."
Bohjalian once told CA: "I view myself fundamentally as a novelist. Although I am also a weekly newspaper columnist and freelance journalist, it is my novels that matter to me most. I have no particular agenda for my writing—especially my fiction—no particular goal. I write because it gives me enormous pleasure, and I can't imagine I'd be happy doing anything else."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 292: Twenty-first-Century American Novelists, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2004.
Book, November, 2000, p. 86; March-April, 2002, Paul Evans, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. 67.
Booklist, March 1, 1995, Janet St. John, review of Water Witches, p. 1177; February 15, 1997, Jennifer Henderson, review of Midwives, p. 1001; March 1, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. 1089; August, 2004, Kristine Huntley, review of Before You Know Kindness, p. 1895; December 15, 2006, Kristine Huntley, review of The Double Bind, p. 20.
Boston Herald, March 24, 2002, Philip Herter, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. 48.
Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT), May 7, 2000, Erica Jacobson, "Vt. Fodder Adds Character to His Fiction," p. D1; October 19, 2000, Erica Jacobson, "Midwives on Stage," p. D3.
Denver Post, April 14, 2002, Robin Vidimos, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. EE3.
Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2004, Jennifer Reese, review of Before You Know Kindness, p. 78.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), April 7, 2002, Curt Schleier, "Chris Bohjalian Is Happy He Heard from Oprah," p. J1.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of Idyll Banter: Weekly Excursions to a Very Small Town, p. 1206; February 1, 2007, review of The Double Bind, p. 87.
Kliatt, November, 2005, Nola Theiss, review of Before You Know Kindness, p. 12.
Lambda Book Report, September, 2000, Susan Branch Smith, review of Trans-Sister Radio, p. 17.
Library Journal, February 1, 1997, Reba Leiding, review of Midwives, p. 104; December, 1998, Starr E. Smith, review of The Law of Similars, p. 152; May 1, 2000, Caroline Mann, review of Trans-Sister Radio, p. 151; January, 2002, Colleen Lougen, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. 148; September 1, 2003, Nancy Pearl, "Finding a Sense of Place in Fiction," p. 236; November 15, 2003, John McCormick, review of Idyll Banter, p. 88; January 1, 2007, Joy Humphrey, review of The Double Bind, p. 87.
New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1997, Suzanne Berne, review of Midwives, p. 18; March 14, 1999, Liz Rosenberg, review of The Law of Similars, p. 37.
People, August 25, 1997, Michelle Green, review of Midwives, p. 41; March 8, 1999, Pam Lambert, review of The Law of Similars, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, review of Water Witches, p. 58; January 20, 1997, review of Midwives, p. 390; July 7, 1997, John Mutter, "Birthing Midwives," p. 24; October 5, 1998, review of The Law of Similars, p. 77; November 9, 1998, Daisy Maryles, "Oprah Gives Birth to Another Winner," p. 21; January 4, 1999, Amy Boaz, "Chris Bohjalian: On the Fringes of Modern Life," p. 67; April 17, 2000, review of Trans-Sister Radio, p. 50; January 7, 2002, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. 42; September 29, 2003, review of Idyll Banter, p. 50; September 13, 2004, review of Before You Know Kindness, p. 58; November 13, 2006, review of The Double Bind, p. 33.
San Antonio Express-News (San Antonio, TX), March 16, 2007, Jennifer Roolf Laster, "Double Bind Takes Literary Risk."
Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), March 31, 2002, Nancy Pearl, review of Trans-Sister Radio, p. K8.
Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia), May 14, 2000, Robyn Garner, review of Trans-Sister Radio, p. 24.
Tennessean (Nashville, TN), April 7, 2002, Lynette Ingram, review of The Buffalo Soldier, p. D43.
USA Today, February 12, 2007, Carol Memmott, "Photos Find a Home in Bohjalian's Story."
BookBrowse,http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (March 5, 2004), "An Interview with Chris Bohjalian about Midwives."
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (March, 2002), Alden Mudge, "Exploring the Trials and Triumphs of an All-American Family."
Chris Bohjalian Home Page,http://www.chrisbohjalian.com (September 25, 2007).
FailBetter.com,http://failbetter.com/ (November 3, 2008), "Chris Bohjalian: Interview."
Loaded Shelf,http://www.loadedshelf.com/ (January 7, 2007), Kelly Hewitt, "Loaded Questions with Chris Bohjalian."