The Race Towards the Light: Hardscrabble by Ember Nelson is a lengthy memoir of the life of the author. Nelson was a tournament Scrabble player who sadly died eight years ago yet I acquired her book shortly after its publication in 2004 and as is typical of me waited all these years before I read it. The book, a self-published endeavour, was a lengthy 469 pages of dense text in a small font. Pictured on the cover is a beautiful portrait of the author’s daughter Genevieve, whose life was challenged by cerebral palsy. Nelson wrote about the lives both she and her daughter led and endured. The pages were full of description, yet the picayune detail was irrelevant to the story. The overabundance of housekeeping banalities and on-line Scrabble conversations did nothing to enhance it. An editor would have pared these details down to leave the book at half its size.
I wish an editor had taken a look at this book before publication. Why don’t authors who publish their own works do this? I will mercilessly pillory any author whose work has evaded the editorial eye. Nelson’s work was full of greengrocer’s plurals (I rolled my eyes at attorney’s), erroneous capitalizations of nouns and adjectives, contractions without apostrophes, regularly using the nominative first-person singular pronoun after prepositions (“between Gen and I”, “with Randy and I”), inserting spaces between common compound words, using suppose to instead of supposed to, alternating between phony and phoney on adjacent pages (this word comes up often when talking about Scrabble), using perspective every time she meant prospective, confusing past with passed, rod iron for wrought iron, and multiple misuses of the verbs lie and lay:
“They would see by his actions and by his inaction’s where his heart truly lied and how black and hardened it was.”
I should have known what I was getting into from the very first word on page one:
“Lay down on the couch and maybe they will stop.”
I should cut Nelson some slack because she was after all supplying a quotation and the speaker may have actually said that (instead of “Lie down on the couch…”) but Nelson did err again and again with the wrong verb. I could not believe another mistake, a misuse of a similarly-sounding (but wrong) word:
“Gen didn’t get a thing for it accept to be left alone and probably purposefully separated from her siblings.”
She had the tendency to label people, things and experiences all with the same superlative phrasing, which was annoying in its unimaginativeness.
“One of the greatest hearts I had ever seen.”
“He was a really sweet man who had the most sincere and respectful attitude and the kindest eyes I ever saw on a man.”
“She was a beautifully coifed full figured woman with ebony skin as smooth and lovely as the precious ore itself who had the greatest laugh I ever heard in my life.”
I had to shake my head when I read that line. Ebony is not an ore; it is a type of wood. She also confused the Roosevelt presidents, saying to Genevieve, who used a wheelchair:
“As a History major you need to know that one of the most brilliant presidents we ever had was Teddy Roosevelt and he ran this great country of ours from a wheelchair.”
The subtitle, Hardscrabble, seems like an afterthought. It is awkward having a single word after a lengthier main title and would have sounded better if the two were reversed. I understand why Nelson chose the punny Hardscrabble as she was a tournament Scrabble player, and that is how I knew her.
Continuity issues would have been resolved with another pair of eyes to look over the text. It was most obvious when Nelson wrote about being pregnant with her third child, Alex (junior), yet said nothing of his birth until after her fourth child, a daughter, was born. I encountered a similar situation later when, after Nelson left her second husband, she suddenly made references to Genevieve missing “Zander”. I thought the latter must be their pet dog. Only later did I realize that Zander and Alex were the same person.
Following dialogue was another chore because she would often close a quotation when continuing the same speaker across multiple paragraphs. The proper formatting is to leave paragraphs open, only closing the quotation at the very end. Thus whenever I saw paragraphs with closed quotations I always thought that someone else was speaking next.
Unlike other authors who took my advice and edited their works after I revealed all their errors to them, in this case Nelson is deceased and I don’t foresee a second and corrected reprint. In spite of the editorial mess this book is I must nevertheless say that The Race Towards the Light was highly readable and the story, although lumbered with unnecessary details, flowed well and I genuinely wanted to continue reading. Nelson made it abundantly clear that she was a loving mother who worked tirelessly and through much of her own pain to provide for Genevieve and the rest of her family. This book is a testament to what a mother will do to help a disabled daughter and to keep the family peace. I will dump even on a deceased woman for the poor state of her writing but that should not detract from her ceaseless devotion in regards to caring for Genevieve.
If you are interested in this book for its Scrabble content, then you will have to wait until page 103. Read through the densely-packed pages to get into her mind to learn why she needed to embrace this community for support and friendship. Nelson does drop a lot of names from the club and tournament scene (and sadly for a Scrabble player she misspelled many of them) yet I wonder if she changed any to protect their anonymity. There are websites now to verify who her opponents were or who also attended the same tournaments she did. It was obvious from consulting one particular website that she did misremember some of her tournament performances and who was even there, so she likely was conflating multiple experiences. Her observations of other women, including her opponents, were not flattering and were presented in casual sentences often with one killer adjective dropped in to sully their image. I accept that Nelson worked selflessly to support her four children, one of whom was disabled, and had to contend with two deadbeat husbands but the portrait she painted of herself was more conceited than humble. No other woman could compare to her as she was always the most attractive, desirable, best-dressed, friendliest, spiritual and psychically aware in any room. She was most judgemental about other women’s bodies, taking stabs at other Scrabble women by using obese and overweight in a negative light, while remarking on her exceptional figure in comparison. Throughout the book she prided herself on being so open and accepting of all people, and being the mother of a disabled daughter she definitely experienced the prejudice of others while she was out with Genevieve, yet among other women in the Scrabble community she was not sympathetic.
Nelson battled the authorities to provide Genevieve the most humane care, free of pain and discomfort. In spite of Nelson’s own failing health she always put her daughter first, fighting for stronger painkillers and better hospital or hospice conditions. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Genevieve dies and Nelson was moved to campaign for the right-to-die movement, setting up a foundation in her daughter’s name.
The details in Nelson’s descriptions do seem over the top and her complaints are so repetitive that they seem like whining. The reader will be well familiar with Randy, Alex (senior), Noel and all of their household failings. In spite of this, as well as all the other faults that I deemed more important to talk about first than the book itself, The Race Towards the Light was a good read and I honestly couldn’t put it down. I only wish now that I had read it while Nelson was still alive. With a sizable axe and the editing I recommend the book had the makings of a mainstream bestseller.