A whimsical memento mori, Julia Ridley Smith’s essay collection The Sum of Trifles sifts through the stuff of an inheritance in search of peace.
When Smith’s parents died, they left behind a home full of antiques, trinkets, and photographs—an overwhelming amount of materials to sort through. She delayed; she shifted pieces around. But eventually she got down to the work of deciding what to keep, donate, and sell.
These essays form around objects and oddities, each of which Smith addresses in the greater context of her family stories, Southern history, and literary parallels. A nineteenth century quilt becomes an opportunity to discuss the guilt of being the descendant of slaveholders; she notes that Black women are not credited for such works of art. Her father’s Hi-Fi leads to recollections of their complicated relationship, which was marked by his shifting moods and quiet desire to make stories with her. And her father’s prostheses, which she determines to donate for reuse, lead to meditations on the way that human bodies break down, and on the impossible but inevitable task of letting go of our parents’ bodies.
Smith is a sensitive and nuanced storyteller, so that the very intimate curiosities of her family’s life become a bridge for understanding grief more generally. She couches her sadness in terms of classic novels and modern memoirs, and she reaches a point where she acknowledges that all have lost—such pain joins us as humans.
Smith writes that “the things that make up a home—a personal, intimate world—eventually become nothing more than the residue of a life spent.” Her careful treatment of things inherited—both tangible and internal—is a sympathetic ode to the vibrant stories that live on, even when the people who lived in them have gone.
Michelle Anne Schingler
Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the publisher for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.