The Center of Everything

  • By Jamie Harrison
  • Counterpoint
  • 304 pp.

A compassionate story of family, community, and memories old and new.

For tourists, Livingston may be the home of Class-A trout fishing, scenic mountain views, the wild Yellowstone River, and the best rodeo in Montana, but to fortysomething Polly Schuster, in Jamie Harrison’s The Center of Everything, it has been home to at least five generations of family, too. And, as Polly notes, in Livingston, it’s the tourists who wear the cowboy hats; locals wear baseball caps.

As the novel opens, Polly is dealing with a head injury that has caused sudden lapses of memory, but which also has precipitated the return of older memories. As a result, she worries about her two children and what they will remember “out of this mess,” for in her mind and memory, “good mothers were rarities, the center of everything.”

Indeed, in this wise and warmhearted story, Polly is, whether she realizes it or not, the center of everything.

Harrison deftly weaves the story of Polly’s present life in the summer of 2002 Montana with remembrances of her 8-year-old self in 1968, living on Long Island Sound with her parents (who were often not home) and her great-grandparents: the mythical Papa, an anthropologist in his late 80s, and his wife, Dee, for whom food and the acquiring, preparing, and eating of it was an art and a celebration. It was Papa and Dee whom she remembers most: his stories and his wisdom; her gentleness and, of course, her cooking.

In the present time, Polly has much to contend with beyond the effects of her accident. The upcoming Fourth of July festivities mean more tourists and more business for the restaurant her husband, Ned, runs, and more work for Polly, who frequently preps special dishes for the clientele. As well, Polly’s great-aunt Maude will be arriving for a huge celebration of her 90th birthday, and Polly needs to plan and prepare the meals Maude will expect (since Polly, it seems, inherited her great-grandmother’s culinary skills).

And then, news breaks that teenaged Ariel, the babysitter for Polly’s children, worker in Ted’s restaurant, and all-around favorite in the small community, is missing under questionable circumstances after a group “float” down the fast-running Yellowstone. Despite everything on Polly’s plate, she feels an intense need to help search for Ariel, and it is she who finds the girl’s body, which forces her — and the community — to decipher the strange circumstances of Ariel’s death.

Polly’s memories of her Long Island Sound childhood serve as a kind of welcome relief to her, as well as to the reader, and provide a background of understanding for what is to come. Those days were an almost magical time for Polly and for Edmund, her age-mate and playmate during that year.

On their own much of the time, they played at the beach, argued, slipped carefully past the house where “the witch” lived, hung around the kitchen near Dee, and hid under the porch. In other words, they did all the things unsupervised children find to do, until one day, Edmund’s uncle appeared and took him away.

Devastated, Polly could neither understand why her friend was so abruptly taken, nor why he and his difficult mother had become a part of the household in the first place. It was years before Polly learned the answers. Harrison tells us:

“Childhood is a green knot hiding places and suspended time. It is the speed she can run through grass, the heat of the air, the fear of pissing her pants on the school bus, the difficulty of returning someone’s gaze, a bright object in the sand, the way a good moment can slide to bad.”

Although the novel centers on Polly, it is just as much the story of an extended family making its way through the world, and of a community coming together in times of celebration and tragedy.

Scenes of food and family flow through the narrative in the form of picnics, dinners, parties, menus, and shopping lists. Dee takes the children into the city to buy live squid and lets them help prep it; Maude, having been raised by the epicure Dee, requests specific foods for her birthday visit; and Polly seduces Ned with cured salmon, her mother’s anchovy-dosed meatloaf, and lemon curd folded with meringue.

Harrison elegantly yet simply paints the lives of her characters:

“They mail-ordered olive oil and fancy perennials. They bought a lot of midrange wine and novels they never read. These sorts of decisions and expenditures set a pattern and they danced in and out of debt. Their friends all loved food and wine and the occasional joint, memories of hallucinogens, music. They shared books, teacher tips, pink-eye medications. Ariel as an employee. They trusted each other without confiding too much…”

In The Center of Everything, Jamie Harrison has created a world so total, so real, so personal, that the reader, on finishing it, is missing it already.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

Sarah Shoemaker is a former librarian and the author of four novels, the most recent of which is Mr. Rochester, the story of the man who won Jane Eyre’s heart.

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