The wonder of this emotionally harrowing autobiography is that Richard Rhodes has managed to contain his sorrow and anger all these years. Now in his early 50s, Rhodes has been a successful writer for much of his adult life — the author of the National Book Award-and Pulitzer Prize — winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, as well as of a number of highly acclaimed novels. The literary marketplace, however, tends to reward known quantities, and the Kansas City native’s eclecticism has probably cost his books the wide audience they deserve. The compelling narrative of A Hole in the World ought to remedy that problem for good.
For almost as long as he has been writing, Rhodes tells us, ”I was saving the story for fiction. ” At the urging of his friend, the writer Tracy Kidder (House), however, he summoned the courage to tell it in his own undisguised voice — a therapeutic exercise accomplished with great artistry and a minimum of self-pity. ”I understand,” Rhodes writes, ”that the world is full of terrible suffering, compared to which the small inconveniences of my childhood are as a drop of rain in the sea.”
But how does one measure the despair of a child? When Rhodes was n diapers and his older brother Stanley no more than a toddler, their mother carried a shotgun into the bathroom and shot her brains out. Stanley found her there, ”the oceanic body draining its sea of blood.” The time was 1938, the bottom of the Depression. Day care, as the author ruefully notes, hadn’t been invented for the children of boilermaker’s assistants, and Rhodes’ father was forced into a succession of makeshift arrangements to care for his sons.
When Richard and Stanley were 10 and 12, respectively, their father made a disastrous marriage. As stepmothers go, it is no exaggeration to say, theirs would have made a fine concentration camp commandant. Petty, tyrannical, and unpredictable, Anne Rhodes (who denies the accuracy of her stepson’s charges) worked her defenseless charges like galley slaves, and virtually starved them in the process. To the accompaniment of regular beatings with broom handles and the stiletto heels of her shoes, she inflicted all manner of even subtler tortures as well — forbidding them use of the toilet, for example, after dark.
That we don’t learn how and why the boys’ father acquiesced in what amounted to the systematic torture of his sons is perhaps the only shortcoming in Rhodes’ riveting account. Yet if A Hole in the World is a story of sadism and cowardice, it is also a tale of survival, redemption, and brotherly love. For it was Stanley who finally summoned the courage to help them escape, marching into a nearby police station at the age of 13 to beg for help. ”Stanley,” Rhodes writes, ”my guardian angel, who saved my life.”
But no brief summary can begin to suggest the intense particularity and emotional power of Rhodes’ story. Removed to a ”sturdy, countrified utopia” called the Andrew Drumm Institute, the brothers gradually began to mend. By teaching them farming skills, the institute ”empowered us, lifting us from helplessness.” By nurturing Richard’s bookishness — his lifelong refuge — it enabled him to win a scholarship to Yale. Decades of pain and oceans of booze later, Rhodes may at last be healed. A