The driving force for my new novel, What’s Left, is her struggle to recover her father after he vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe when she’s 11. It’s a tall order, even when it’s self-imposed.

She would say he’s not a typical father. He comes from mainstream roots in Iowa, becomes a professional photographer and starts practicing Tibetan Buddhism before marrying into her mother’s close-knit extended household, one based on running a family-owned restaurant where Cassia and her cousins all wind up working from an early age.

The crucial twist comes through her aunt Nita, who guides Cassia into a long, patient investigation of the photos her father left in disarray in his studio. Bit by bit, the focus shifts to Cassia’s discovery of her own nature, dreams, and destiny – one where her extended family plays a big role.

This detailed sketch got greatly condensed by the final version:

By the time my memories begin, his camera’s doing mostly professional portraiture and fine arts projects. His studio still has floor-to-ceiling record albums and what Manoula says is a great stereo – she used that room as her retreat, too. It’s where he wrote and she often edited, when she needed peace and quiet. By now, his scheduling and billing are handled by Manoula’s administrative assistant. Looks like it worked. …  

I’ll always wish he’d been able to teach me shoot and work the darkroom. His death comes too early for that. At least I have a supportive high school teacher to guide me in that development. When he finally sees the darkroom I’ve inherited, he’s envious. Encourages me to examine my legacy. The trove of history. Maybe even publish my findings.

First, that means simply sorting through negatives and the existing contact sheets. Later, it leads to making selected prints. This, in itself, could be a lifetime project. And then the digital era comes along, permitting me to scan the negatives to electronic images, but even that’s time-consuming. So much of the early color, unfortunately, has faded. I’m tweaking what I can. So what can I Photoshop in good conscience? And what do I leave untouched? No touchups? As if I’ll ever get to the bottom of this collection.

His notes, drafts, and finished manuscripts are just as revealing. His handwriting, though, is quite something to untangle. For one thing, Baba never developed much skill as a calligrapher, try as he might, and he didn’t even pick up the neat lettering so common among artists. Some of the most useful passages describe a shot or photo session.


While Cassia’s father has esoteric trappings, he leaves her with a secret realm to explore, if she desires. This has me wondering about similar situations where a much different person is revealed at some point. Think, for instance, of the mild librarian who leaves a million dollars in her wake, thanks to some very shrewd saving and investing.

How would you feel about having Cassia’s Baba as your father? Or, for that matter, her Manoula as your mother?


Cassia’s family restaurant has me looking more closely at the ones around me. The takeout is at the far end of this commercial block. (South Berwick, Maine)

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