"How the Body Prays"

A beautiful novel examines the toll that pride takes on a Southern family.

By Ruth Henrich
Published August 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Generations of Odoms, the Southern family at the center of Peter Weltner's novel "How the Body Prays," have valued pride above all other traits, learning it practically in the cradle. But pride has taken its toll on them, leading variously to fear of emotion, determination to do nothing, untimely death and suicide. From Andrew Stafford Odom, who saw his father killed by Yankee soldiers in the Civil War, to Andy Odom, whose face bears the scars of combat in Vietnam, Weltner draws moving portraits of the women and, especially, the men who must endure the often devastating effects of this legacy.

Pride and music create the book's tension -- as pride stands between people, music brings them together -- and the brothers Aaron and Andy Odom embody these warring principles. Aaron, the music lover, is the older of the two, a '60s idealist who has discovered the anti-war movement. He is also the favorite of their father, Drew Odom, who supports his decision to leave the country to avoid the draft. Andy is loyal to his grandmother, the proud matriarch, and to the traditions she upholds. He volunteers to fight in Vietnam to make amends for Aaron's impending desertion, but Aaron can't live with his brother's sacrifice, so he enlists himself -- with profound consequences for all.

Their father is the character most affected by Aaron's choice. One of Weltner's strongest chapters gives us some insight into Drew's attachment to his elder son. Aaron is the namesake of an adolescent friend, Aaron Rose, who had loved Drew but whose love Drew couldn't return. Weltner writes beautifully of the bond between these teenage boys, originally forged over their shared love of opera. It's heartbreaking when Drew rebuffs his friend's passion; the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor, and both young men are shipping out immediately. Drew lives out the war years pounding a typewriter behind a desk, always wondering what has happened to Aaron (and knowing that in dodging the ultimate contest of war he is betraying his family name).

Weltner skillfully weaves the music of Bach, Haydn, Wagner and Brahms throughout the book; it becomes a source of peace, reconciliation, religion. Sometimes his dialogue can be stilted -- particularly the lines he gives to Andy and Aaron's twin sisters, who exist less as characters in their own right than as a kind of chorus. But on the whole he has created a complex cast of family members, and it's easy to forgive small failings in a novel as rich as this one. In the end it's up to Andy to have the courage to tell the truth, to take up his father's missed opportunities, to nurture the memory of the dead. Learning to love is his only hope for redemption.

Ruth Henrich

Ruth Henrich is a former associate managing editor of Salon.

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