Many of us have a Lorraine in our lives. For me, she was the home health care aide who worked in our home during the last weeks of my father’s life. The valiant and splendidly tattooed Lorraine navigated our family’s complicated, stressful, and messy world with grace, skill, and humor. Decades later, I still think of her, helping us understand the process of dying, becoming a trusted companion to my dad, and providing emotional support to all of us in his final moments. She drove away on her Harley that October afternoon, to another client probably, and I never saw her again.
I know there are many Lorraines in many homes — and so does Barre author J. Peter Cobb, whose first novel “To Alice” (TouchPoint Press, Jan. 11, 2022) takes us into the world of a Vermont home health care worker who struggles with caring too much.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Providence, Vermont. In the opening, Alice Hammond, a home health aide, negotiates a muddy unimproved road to work with a former logger Clyde Nason. Her inadequate Ford Focus ascends another switchback to his home. Through Alice’s eyes, Cobb paints a crusty Vermonter with affection but never sentimentality. As with Lorraine and my father, the two develop a friendship, playing chess, talking about the life of a logger, and engaging in good-natured sparring and insults.
One of the struggles of the home health center is keeping staff members to a strict schedule so workers arrive at the next job on time, maximizing efficiency and helping the agency stay afloat financially. This leads to tension between Alice and her supervisor Susan because, while caring and skillful with clients, she always runs late. (“We don’t pay you to listen to stories. If you listened less, you’d be on time more.”) A major plot point involves Alice inheriting all of Clyde’s assets when he dies, leaving out a brother who accuses her of exploiting her patient and threatening legal action.
The novel switches effectively from Alice’s perspective — in her shabby apartment and at work — with portraits of the homebound clients she visits. We read about her life, her struggles to make a living, and to balance her private and professional worlds. She has conflict with her accomplished family, who expected her to finish medical school. The reason she abandoned that study becomes clearer as the narrative progresses.
The author served for many years as the director of Vermont’s Visiting Nurse Association. Clearly, his professional life afforded him a close-up view of the world of rural life and the challenges and joys of working with people in their homes. And as a longtime resident of Barre Town, Cobb peppers his narrative with details that ring true. In these sections, Vermont life comes alive — from mud season to Thunder Road. His view is appreciative without ignoring the poverty and isolation. The local reader will recognize familiar place names such as Blanchard Block and Beckley Hill, and other parts of Vermont culture in the granite gravestones, frozen pipes in a doublewide, shit-kickers, Red Sox, Canadian hockey, and Bud Lite.
There is beauty amid the grittiness in Cobb’s novel. And readers care about Alice and the Vermonters she serves, and her reluctance to establish boundaries between them.
The subtitle of “To Alice” asks, “Is caring too much a bad thing?” There is no clear-cut answer, a mark of a realistic novel. We do ask the questions, though, as we depend on workers such as Alice in our homes and consider the emotional and financial cost to them. We also see the bigger picture: an underfunded and understaffed health care system.
When Lorraine left our house, did she grieve because her friend/client had died, or did she feel proud of her achievements? Was she paid commensurate with the
importance of the job? Cobb pays tribute to those who provide home health care
in sometimes difficult circumstances, and, through a main character who rings true in every chapter, explores the complicated but rewarding relationships of caretakers in our communities.
“To Alice” can be found at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Next Chapter Bookstore in Barre, and Bridgeside Books in Waterbury, as well as on Amazon.
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