The Way Things Are…
Connecting the dots. Looking backward to look forward. Personal discovery. Acceptance. Rejection. Change. Love. Family.
People encountered along the park path…a young soldier who died in Viet Nam…is God like a baseball—or softball…growing old…patched relationships…a fascinating trip to Romania…
With humor and thought, award winning author Bill Mathis explores his surroundings, contemplates his past, and looks to the future.
Eula’s stardust—spirit—has been waiting for her father to return to their old farmhouse so she can learn why he didn’t rescue her, her brother, and their mother. Dying of cancer, her father Duane, finally returns. He wants to pass away with his guilt and remorse of not being able to rescue his family and, more importantly, his secret shame over the way he dealt with his mixed race relationship. Retha, a nurse specializing in end of life care, works to help him overcome his regrets. In the process, each realize their secrets and their families are intertwined. In this touching and deeply layered story of race, prejudice and love, an Eastern white pine tree—named Memory—presides over the front yard and proves to be a generational refuge.
Revenge is Necessary
Shaw Skogman, a taciturn, successful farmer, erupts and attempts to kill his wife and son by firing a shotgun at them. Shaw ends up with a severe leg wound but chooses to die rather than accept a lifesaving amputation. His wife and family learn more shocking things about him as they discover the separate life he led in plain sight. Elderly farmers and their spouses died. Was it of natural causes? How did he acquire so much land? What was the relationship between him and Melvin, his nervous right-hand man? Shaw’s first wife committed suicide—or did she? What roles do a gay undertaker, a closeted sheriff, and two gay teens play in discovering the answers? Finally, what secrets did his second wife have?
The Rooming House Gallery
Josh and Andres unexpectedly inherit an old rooming house in Chicago. Each discovers they have a long and deep history with the place. Thrilled to have a home of their own, plus a place for Andres to make and sell his art, the two are challenged to turn the place into a community art center. The challenge becomes more personal as each deals with their own backgrounds, family issues and differing personal interests. Tough decisions are made about their new/old home, relationship with their fathers, and their conflict over starting a family. The neighboring family and new friends play a key role as they bring the art center to fruition, move into a new personal home, and begin a non-DNA family.
The Rooming House Diaries
Six fascinating and touching diaries are discovered in an old rooming house that detail the lives of the owners and tenants spanning over a century of change in Chicago’s Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood. An unwed pregnant teen shows up; a teen from Paris, France appears, the result of a relationship during World War I; the first Mexican in the neighborhood is given a room and eventually inherits the place, his diary describes his young life running the streets in Tijuana, Mexico and how the rooming house served undocumented AIDS clients. The matriarch leaves a long-hidden diary that details her undisclosed life of brothels. Filled with love, life and family secrets, The Rooming House Diaries prove DNA does not always make a complete family.
Face Your Fears
Face Your Fears is filled with vitality as it challenges the traditional concepts of normalcy, family, disability and love. Nate is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy raised in a family of achievers. He must be fed, dressed and toileted, yet has unique skills and abilities he gradually becomes aware of. Jude is able-bodied, one of 10 children raised on a hardscrabble Iowa farm. He can change diapers, cook, fix equipment, milk cows, and discovers his vocation as a physical therapist. Both experience tragic teen-age losses, navigate family tragedies, and come to peace with who they are individually as gay men, and eventually together.
This book shows how normal comes wrapped in different packages, yet inside each package, people are the same, whether able-bodied, disabled, black, white, brown, green or LGBTQ+.
Reader Comments & Reviews
The Way Things Are
Ronni Moore O’Toole
Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Social Worker
“The Way Things Are… is both entertaining and thought provoking. Bill proves once again he writes from his heart.”
M.S. in Community Health, also known as supermom
“The Way Things Are” carefully weaves together a tapestry of Bill’s childhood memories and meaningful relationships from a young boy’s mischievous pranks to reflections of adulthood. Throughout this collection of stories and poetry, Bill shares intimate, heartwarming, and sometimes painful stops along his life journey. You’ll laugh as you travel with Bill to Romania and you’ll cry as you read each piece of his coming out story. It’s a beautiful testament to the bonds we form with others, the resilience in each of us, and importance of extending grace and unconditional love no matter where life takes us. His fiction pieces also speak to the same grace and love.
“For the second consecutive year, an entry of yours finished in the top 3 of the Chicago Writers Association’s 5th Annual First Chapter Contest. The Board of Directors selected your opening chapter to “Memory Tree” as the Third Prize winner out of a record number of entries.”
Louis Butler, attorney
Bill Mathis understands the passion and humor, but more importantly, the pain and struggle that comes with being involved in an interracial relationship. A timely story as America comes to grips with its ugly past. .
author of The Home For Wayward Clocks and If You Tame Me.
While Mathis’ Memory Tree is set in the past, it holds timely truths for today. Racism is presented in a wholly unique way, as a personal story and journey, as the main character Duane struggles with lessons learned from his father and his own heart telling him there’s a different way. Teetering on the edge of death, Duane sorts through all the joys and sorrows of his life as he’s tenderly cared for by caretaker Retha, who has a secret of her own. Mathis is a skilled storyteller who knows exactly how to weave us through the unexpected and make the unbelievable believable.
author of Remembering My Monk.
The Memory Tree is a satisfying tale with an end of life review that offers redemption to a whole host of characters and inspires hope in the reader.
M.S. in Community Health, also known as Super Mom.
In Memory Tree, author Bill Mathis has brought a new set of characters to life. None of them perfect, but all of them human, though one has transitioned to stardust. Each character looks back trying to make sense of life’s puzzle pieces. Like every good story, this book allows us to look a bit deeper, to analyze our own actions and the resulting consequences, our own prejudices, the times we have stood as allies and the times we have looked the other way. There is plenty of regret to go around, but there is also hope in vulnerability, truth and love.
Ron Watson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Political Science and Health & Society, Beloit College
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of reading this story. Memory Tree was deeply moving, meaningful and gripping from the first pages. I think many, many people, especially white Americans, need to read this. The insight into the psyche of non-Southern whites around race is heart-rending, infuriating and humanizing all at the same time.
Revenge is Necessary
“…this thriller has an excellent premise and a story that includes plenty of revelations, unexpected twists, and complex characters.”
Revenge- quiet rage and devastating action – This is a great read- a complex story of a dysfunctional family in the upper Midwest. Emotional dysfunction and angst in farming communities is quiet- people don’t yell and scream and curse, they don’t inflict daily verbal abuse, but they wait patiently till the time is right. Author Bill Mathis has captured the quiet rage and devastating action of a troubled family.
Revenge is Necessary is a compelling read- the story unfolds with increasing complexity, but remains believable. The intelligence of the characters makes them likeable and the warmth of family relationships is comforting. I recommend this highly.
Kathie Giorgio, Author, owner director at AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop
“Plot twists keep you guessing, intense emotions keep you honed in, exposed secrets will make you gasp, and well-drawn characters will have you cheering for more. What’s beyond a page-turner? I don’t know…but this book is it.”
author and editor
“WOW! You had me from the first word. The story evolved beautifully.”
Strategic Planning Consultant
Betrayal is wicked. Revenge is necessary. Patience is a virtue.’ A stunning collection of statements. The first is true; the second, repulsively human; the third taking on a frightening meaning when it follows the first two. Deception; intrigue; a loveable hate-able collection of characters; a quiet rural setting highlighting the challenges of farming; a blended family; an intriguing sidebar of love in all its forms; and last, but by no means, least, an incredible tale of abuse, caring, loyalty, determination, courage, and revenge.
I’m amazed by the author’s extraordinary gift and abilities in creating such thoroughly engaging and complex characters, not only in this book, but in his prior works as well. The depth of character development is incredible! Each character is “fully human” in appearance, in heart, in mind, and in soul.
retired pharmacist, freelance writer, film critic and prescreener for the Beloit International Film Festival
“Revenge is Necessary is one of the most engaging books I have read in a long time. Before you’ve turned the first page it has pulled you in like a whirlpool. Enjoy the ride.”
Founder and Managing Director: the Automotive Heritage Foundation, Creator, Producer and Host: A Shunpiker’s Journal Radio Program,Associate Producer: Sirens of Chrome — The Motion Picture
“Fabulous! Well done! Great story! The story was complex enough to hold interest, and the farther I got into it the harder it was to put it aside. The gay characters are integrated naturally and the mental health and societal issues handled beautifully. The characters are well rounded and believable. Love the Midwest farm setting and references.”
The Rooming House Gallery: Connecting the Dots
History and contemporary life duke it out in a quest for acknowledgment in this edition of the Rooming House saga. A building with a previous life is bequeathed to a young couple, one wanting home and family, one wanting space and community action. They learn their roots go deep and twine through the building’s very foundation, and their current relationship may have sprung from history itself as they unravel personal stories from the ledgers and diaries left in the building.
At heart is the author’s passion for family, something that resonates with me. When two people try to form a more perfect union, no matter who, what, when, and where they are, reality often exposes scars and warts and everyone’s personal level of depravity. It’s the committed soul who can share the healing process. Andres and Josh may look and act like opposites, but their mutual affection and determination to give and take are an example for all couples. Each has a desire to learn from the past and grow forward, while serving the greater community. They’ve been together ten years, but how well do they know each other, truly, and the direction to the next level of their union are questions explored in this richly nuanced, very human story.
Told from a large perspective, occasionally shifting among family and community members, the reader is drawn into the secrets and revelations of the evolving American culture. I also had to look up a tamale recipe. While bedroom scenes are under covers, so to speak, parents of potential readers under 16 might want to vet the book first.
Reviewer Lisa Lickel writes from the peaceful rolling hills of western Wisconsin. A multi-published, best-selling and award-winning novelist, she also writes short stories and radio theater, occasional articles, is an avid book reviewer, blogger, and a freelance editor. She and her husband travel and enjoy family time.
Windy City Reviews
Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport
The Rooming House Gallery: Connecting the Dots is an engaging follow-up companion to The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & Secrets, Mathis’ novel published last year. Like Diaries, Mathis built Gallery on the same premise as Elmer Rice’s famous play Street Scene—the lives of residents of the same building. Unlike Diaries, which was also a social history of Chicago, Gallery has a compressed timeline in the recent past. Yet at its best, Gallery becomes a sort of contemporary Canterbury Tales or Decameron in that there’s a strong focus on storytelling.
Manny Rodriguez, a gay Hispanic man who is disabled from childhood abuse and a significant character in Diaries, is dying. He informs his visiting nephew, Andres, and his partner, Josh, that they will inherit a property Manny owns—an old rooming house. After Manny’s death, they move in, and the century-old saga of 4822 South Justine continues with the building now transforming into a community art gallery.
As in the previous volume, Mathis’ narrative is a delight to read. The writing rarely lags, and the large and diverse group of characters is artfully handled. The tale of Andres’ mother, Bella Briseno Rodriguez, is particularly engaging. An illegal immigrant seduced and left pregnant by an unscrupulous man, Bella manipulates events that force him to marry her, teaches herself English from her son’s library books, and builds a life for herself and her son in the midst of a bitter marriage.
The book has one area for improvement. The central structural narrative—Andres’s and Josh’s struggle with the building—isn’t as engaging as the stories of characters such as Bella Briseno Rodriguez. Perhaps in the future, Mathis will write a novel that models more closely on the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, thus focusing more fully on his great strength of storytelling. Meanwhile, The Rooming House Gallery: Connecting the Dots will delight Mathis fans and make him many new ones.This book is a satisfying companion piece to Bill Mathis’ book The Rooming House Diaries. Bill is a storyteller who pulls the reader in to the characters and locales he has created. Bill describes the joys, challenges, and heartbreak of family relationships – both DNA and non-DNA family. As the character Lacie McGuire said in Bill’s first book, “We don’t measure family by blood.” There is a thread that runs through Bill’s first three books so I highly recommend them all. Prepare to become attached to these characters – they will stay with you long after you’ve finished their tales.
5 stars on Amazon by Nottsdotti
Bill is a terrific writer! I was glad to see a new Bill Mathis book and it doesn’t disappoint. I love how vivid and lively our author spins his yarns and draws you right in. You don’t want to miss this one!
5 Stars on Amazon by Roberta Otoole
“Life challenges make for good reading. In a touching and joyful manner, two young men explore how to help their community and along the way learn more about themselves. As they maneuver through the complexity of daily life the couple also explores interpersonal issues and choices made by each other as well as their family members. Descriptive writing places the reader in the scene and allows us to capture the emotions of the various situations. Strong opinions and feelings evident throughout the story culminate in a satisfying resolution. I love good ending and you will too as you follow the sometimes difficult but interesting lives of the characters.”
5 Stars on Amazon by Bob Wood
Very Fine Read. Everyone should read The Rooming House Gallery: Connecting the Dots, by Bill Mathis. Bill Mathis’ characters are real and fully believable. His tale will keep you turning the pages. There’s love and lots of humanity. You’ll find yourself becoming a part of the community surrounding the old Rooming House as it becomes an historic site and a haven for artists. The tale highlights life, trials, joy, sadness’s, victories…and mostly love. Bill Mathis uses words to paint images that make you feel you’re there, in the moment; experiencing all the experiences! The Rooming House Gallery: Connecting the Dots is a very fine read! I thoroughly enjoyed it and have no doubt you will too!! I highly recommend this book!!!
“I just finished reading your newest book, and it was my favorite of the three!” Your fan, Marge
5 Stars on Goodreads by Vicki Johnson
This book is a satisfying companion piece to Bill Mathis’ book The Rooming House Diaries. Bill is a storyteller who pulls the reader in to the characters and locales he has created. Bill describes the joys, challenges, and heartbreak of family relationships – both DNA and non-DNA family. As the character Lacie McGuire said in Bill’s first book, “We don’t measure family by blood.” There is a thread that runs through Bill’s first three books so I highly recommend them all. Prepare to become attached to these characters – they will stay with you long after you’ve finished their tales.
The Rooming House Diaries
Vicki Johnson writes, “I really enjoyed The Rooming House Diaries and look forward to reading more of Josh and Andres story (in The Rooming House Gallery). Your characters are so fully developed that I feel I know them. I like your description of non-DNA family and count myself lucky to have a couple of them in my life.”
Mathis (Face Your Fears, 2018) offers a prequel novel that offers a striking account of life in 20th-century Chicago.
In 2009, Andres Rodriquez and his longtime romantic partner Josh Sawicki inherit a disused Chicago rooming house. They find, in the building’s ledgers, several diaries containing the history of the house’s inhabitants from its construction in 1887 to the present. Four of the entries belong to members of the Sawicki family. In the late 1800s, Josef Sawicki was a Polish immigrant on his own in America at the age of 17; his wife, Walentina, was a sex worker in a bathhouse with a secretive past. Together, they erected and maintained the multistory apartment building. Their son, Hank, and his wife, Mae, then took over and raised 10 children together. Two other entries belong to the Sawickis’ unofficial family—a young woman named Katerina Koslowski, who came to the boardinghouse as a pregnant teenager, and Manny Rodriguez, a gay Mexican man with a disabled arm. Also included are letters and comments from other family members, such as Katerina’s daughter, Krystina; Hank’s illegitimate son, Arnaud; and Hank’s youngest, most troubled child, Tommy. Together, the diaries comprise an extensive family history that ably captures the changing culture of the United States over the course of the 20th century, including events such as women’s suffrage, both world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis. Particular attention is paid to the transformation of social attitudes toward minority groups. Over the course of the novel, Mathis doesn’t avoid disturbing elements, from visceral accounts of childbirth to characters casually delivering racial slurs to chilling descriptions of childhood sexual assault. The way that he portrays family dynamics is insightful and raw; the characters’ flaws and virtues are complex and make the cast compellingly realistic. The prose also has a wry touch of humor that offsets the turbulent and often tragic events. It’s a lengthy story but well worth the time and effort.
A story of secrecy, suffering, fortitude, and compassion that demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the human psyche.
Reviews by Amos Lassen
We love reading about secrets so it is fascinating to be able to read six diaries that were discovered in an old rooming house and give the lives of the owners and tenants over a hundred years in Chicago. The diaries include those of an unwed pregnant teen, a teen from Paris after a relationship during World War I, a Mexican who is the first in the neighborhood, undocumented AIDS clients, and a mother who worked in a brothel who leaves a long-hidden diary that details her undisclosed life of brothels. The characters are fascinating and their stories mesmerize as we cross time spans. Each diarist added a little bit more and added to the fact that a family does not have to be one that you are born into. Writer Bill Mathis takes us through lives of his characters and we see their loves and feelings about so much. It is through the diaries that were written by those who lived in the house that we learn so much about humanity. We also have the diaries of the family members of the man who built the rooming house. It is in the diaries that the theme of humanity runs strong along with ideas of redemption, learning how to live and acceptance of others. We see how a family is built even if the members do not share blood. We are taken through the ups and downs of life as we go through woes and wars, marriages, discrimination, troubles, marriages, racial discrimination and see the neighborhood that moves from immigrants of Eastern Europe to Mexican to Black and how people were treated over the course of a century. It is Manny who finds the rooming house after a quarter of that century of being homeless and a hustler who sold his body to other men in order to survive. He finds the rooming house to be a home and it is his story that is the center of the book. Mathis is a fine storyteller who pulls us in on the first page. He is also an excellent writer who had me turning pages as quickly as possible and who kept me captive as I read the book in one sitting. It is the prefect read during these trying times and certainly more fun than watching the bad news of television.
The Coffee Pot Book Club Review
Six diaries and some correspondence are found in an old Chicago rooming house. The diaries span the 20th century. Written by the immigrants who built the place in 1887, their children and several roomers, they tell the stories of everyday people struggling, surviving and succeeding at life amidst the historical backdrop of World Wars I & II, the Great Depression, prejudice, demographic changes in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, and epidemics, including AIDS. It’s rich, deep, at times raw, yet shows the humanity, spirit and love of family, both blood related and non-DNA.
It’s a novel of changing times and attitudes; family secrets covered up for over one hundred years; religious, ethnic and gender prejudice; the changes in Chicago, a neighborhood and our nation; the joys of diversity and the richness of our society, warts and all
“So, now we got us an eighteen-year-old Mexican from Tiawano and an albino banker from Roseland living on the third floor…”
Josef Sawicki knows that his time on earth is coming to an end. But before he dies, he wants to pen his memoirs so that his story will not be forgotten. What the old man did not realise was that he had started a tradition that would go on for three generations. This is the story of the Sawicki family and the Rooming House that was their business and their home.
The Rooming House Diaries – Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis is an emotionally charged story of a seemingly inconsequential rooming house and the people that lived there.
With a sweeping, yet intimate narrative — composed of a memoir, diary entries and letters — and a crystalline understanding of what makes reading entertaining, Mathis has presented his readers with a book that is as mesmerising as it is powerful. This novel spans three generations and over one hundred years of history — it begins in a small village in Olsztyn, Poland (East Prussia) and ends with the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. In the pages of this remarkable book, Mathis has penned a story that is as lucid in the telling as it is rich in the historical detail. Mathis takes his readers on a poignant journey of discovery and has written an unputdownable tale.
Six fabulous protagonists tell the story of The Rooming House, but I am just going to focus on two of them as well as one of the secondary characters. The first protagonist I want to talk about is a wonderful lady called Mae Sawicki. Mae married Hank, the son of the original owner of the Rooming House. Mae was like a fresh of breath air on a hot summer’s day. She was immensely likeable, full of good humour and a character that was an absolute pleasure to read about. Mae does face several trials and tribulations throughout this book, but her sense of joy and her love for her family is never diminished. The one thing I really liked about Mae was how she saw the world. She becomes very liberal in her views, especially when she is a very old woman, and in the end, she doesn’t seem to care where you are from, and what your story is, all she is interested in is who you are now. With this approach to life, it is very easy to understand how she becomes a motherlike figure to several lodgers, for she is filled with tenderness and compassion. Sometimes she takes a little while to like and trust, but when she does, then there is nothing she would not do. She is the truest of friends. Mae is an incredible heroine.
My absolute favourite character in this book is a young Mexican called Manny Rodriguez. Manny’s back story is incredibly moving — it is one of poverty, physical abuse and prostitution. Manny, however, is one of the most complex, and the most caring character in this book. He is this wonderful young man who is desperately trying to escape his past and start again. Being a Mexican in Chicago in the 1960s is a challenge — being gay makes it twice as hard. I adored everything about this character. He is the most caring and compassionate man who anyone would be proud to call a son, but whose own father fails to see the gem that Manny is. Despite a very dubious background, Manny is a very reserved young man, which more than likely saves his life. He ends up helping those who have AIDs die with dignity and respect. Manny is a character that will stay with me for a very long time.
Tommy is a source of violence and danger in this book, and although he is not one of the main characters, I feel I have to spend a little time scrutinising his depiction. Even from a toddler, Tommy is a threatening menace. He is uncontrollably violent, and his parents have no idea how to handle him — and it is not because they are bad parents, or that they are doing something wrong. In today’s society, Tommy would have been under a pediatrician for his mental health — he shows signs of extreme Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). Back in the late 1940s, children’s mental health and disorders such as autism were only just being recognised, and it wasn’t really understood. To write about a child who has an extremely violent mental health condition such as this, but then to express it so vividly and in a historical setting would, I think, be a challenge for many very experienced authors. Mathis’ depiction of Tommy was staggeringly realistic.
Tommy is a character that will not attract sympathy from a reader, and I don’t think Mathis wanted to make his readers sympathise with him. Tommy has very few redeemable qualities. He is excessively violent. He is narcissistic — he takes no responsibilities for his actions and blames his parents, particularly his father, for everything. He also becomes a violent sexual predator at a very young age. There are scenes in this book where Tommy is sexually abusing a younger child which was incredibly difficult in the reading, and it did make me feel physically sick. But what I was fascinated in was how, when discovered, this sexual abuse was dealt with. There were no therapists for either child and instead, Tommy is sent away to a boy’s home because his parents do not know how to deal with him. The guilt that Tommy’s parents feel and the grief that they have to go through to come to terms with the fact that Tommy isn’t, nor will he ever be, the person whom they had imagined he would become is very sensitively approached and drawn. I thought Tommy’s portrayal was incredibly convincing and the emotional rollercoaster that his parents go through is very real in the telling. They certainly had my sympathy.
The historical detailing of this book has to be commended. Over a hundred years of history is crammed into this book. I can only imagine how many hours Mathis spent researching all the different eras. However long the research took it was most definitely worth it. This book is a monumental work of scholarship. But it is not just the historical detail in this book that has to be commended. It is the hours researching the historical sociocultural anthropology / sociology as well. L. P. Hartley once wrote that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” They also thought differently as well, and so, therefore, there are incidents of blatant racism and homophobia throughout most of this book because that is what society was like back then. But Mathis balances this awful prejudice by giving his readers Manny — who is both a Mexican and gay — which I thought was really well thought through.
Mathis gives us a glimpse into the lives of some very ordinary people. We become privy to their most cherished aspirations. We lament in their defeat and celebrate their success. This is a book that demands every conceivable emotion from its readers. I laughed out loud. I cried. I felt moments of anger and disgust. But I also felt a sense of hope, a sense of life, for that is what this book is about, it is about life in all its honest, ugly, beautiful detail.
At times The Rooming House Diaries – Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis does make for some emotionally challenging reading, but it is also immensely successful. This is the kind of book that deserves to be read again and again and again, and it is one you want all your friends to read as well so you can all chat about it over coffee. It is undoubtedly worthy of a place on your bookshelf. I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
Windy City Reviews
Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport
The Rooming House Diaries is an absorbing novel far superior to what one might expect from its title. The novel, Bill Mathis’ second, is a saga about a boarding house. Mathis describes the book as follows:
Six diaries and correspondence are discovered in an old rooming house in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago. The diaries span the 20th century and are written by the original owners, their children, and several roomers amidst the historic events, the demographic changes in Chicago and the nation.
Mathis’ narrative is a delight to read, and his mastery of character is impressive. Although the novel is episodic and driven by character rather than plot, the story-telling rarely lags and the large and diverse group of characters, mostly ordinary people, is artfully handled.
The novel is nostalgic, sentimental, and mostly cheerful but doesn’t avoid visceral realities. In some sections, the book veers towards being a kinder and gentler Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby’s harsh masterpiece set in mid-century New York City. Mathis is so accomplished at what he does well—writing a page-turner about daily life in 20th century Chicago—that one cannot help but wonder about the novel’s one limitation: the lack of a strong point of view.
The characters are uniformly intriguing, and some are memorable, such as two former sex workers: Walentina, a Polish immigrant born into prostitution, and Manny, a gay Hispanic man who is disabled from childhood abuse. Yet, a writer of Mathis’ talent seems capable of delivering an even richer novel. Readers have taken many literary treks through this period of history. To fully “lift the soufflé,” we need the author’s unique take on the times—the subjective resonance authors like Selby or Theodore Dreiser or Armistead Maupin would bring to this type of story. A bedrock cheerfulness and a background focus on social inequities, while useful, are not enough to fully frame Mathis’ perspective.
Still, only a superior writer would be subject to such criticism.The Rooming House Diaries is a gripping and compelling read from an accomplished writer.
Bill Mathis delivers the perfect fix for all those voyeurs at heart who’d love to discover a private diary containing intimate, lascivious and salacious entries that make you feel just a little guilty as you read the secrets of another’s life. He doesn’t give you only one diary either. These diaries consist of family history, and a graphic glimpse of the unfolding of early U.S. history that is powerfully portrayed in The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis. The prologue, set in 2009, tantalizes the reader to delve into one hundred and twenty years of family stories, mysteries, surprises, and secrets. The generational diaries begin with a Polish immigrant’s notes found in an old ledger. Josef Sawicki died in Chicago in 1936. His diary was translated into English by his daughter-in-law, Mae. The ledger and others containing subsequent diaries were found in a Chicago rooming house which is a catalyst for the plot. The first few diaries are sequential; however, the latter are a retelling or reminiscing of the family’s story from different points of view. Deceit and tangled webs of disgrace, love, and redemption are encompassed by the extended family. The diaries expose the lives of multiple individuals sparing nothing – they talk of their quirks, allegiances, betrayals, love, sex, partners, friends, roommates, sadness, deaths and numerous satirical events
The author’s characters are distinctive as “real” people. The reader can visualize characters such as the Catholic Sister who is over six feet tall and thin and is rumored to wear thick-soled shoes that made her look even taller. She looked down on you, over large round glasses sliding down her nose and had green eyes that bore into you. The kids feared her. Dialog and dialect are masterfully used to flesh out the characters as when Clancy is asked where he is from. He replies, “Me? I got an accent? I ain’t got no accent. You da one talks funny. Me? Dad says we hines fifty-seven mixed wit a lot of milkman… We American, man. We shicaago true and true. Been here since dirt. You gotta learn to talk good English, man. I ain’t got no accent.” The physical setting of a rooming house is a perfect background for the “hines fifty-seven” personalities who reside there. Built-in the late 1880s, the twenty-by-eighty foot three-storied building held a four-bedroom owners apartment on the first floor and a small back apartment. The second floor contained fifteen eight-by-nine foot rooms for single men. The third floor had thirteen rooms for women and a matron’s efficiency apartment. Two out-houses served the building until much later when plumbing was installed. The interwoven plot is as varied as the extended family and tenants that live in the rooming house. The reader will empathize with the trauma and powerful love that hold the family together. Compassion throughout the generations and the theme, “love in families can be difficult”, is continued in the author’s sequels, The Rooming House Gallery, and Face Your Fears.
Reviewed by: carol W
Review by author David W. Berner
5 Stars on Amazon & Goodreads:
Bill Mathis shapes a poignant story of family through the diary entries of the dead, entries discovered in an old rooming house in Chicago. The story shines a light on the dynamics of relationships with all its flaws and carries the reader through the changing times of the 20th century—both World Wars, The Depression, even the AIDS crisis. There’s both tragedy and humor, and great insight into the human condition. The Rooming House Diaries is a sweeping evolutionary tale of family and America.
Review by Robert Wood:
Those of you who haven’t yet read books by Bill Mathis, should make it your mission to do so. His book, The Rooming House Diaries, is a must read. Mathis crafts a story that gently guides the reader through lives that ultimately reveal the loves, biases, prejudices, understandings, and misunderstandings which we all encounter every day in our own lives. You will find his story captivating and very interesting. You will eagerly await the very next page!
Humanity and love roll off the pages like bubbles roll off a fine Champagne. From simple characters of differing times, nationalities, religions, sexes, and sexual orientations…the notion that beneath it all…we are just fellow human beings, emerges. While this story is highly entertaining, it is also thought provoking.
I cannot recommend The Rooming House Diaries higher. I believe most everyone will enjoy it, and be happy that they read it!
5 stars on Goodreads
I found this novel to be extremely compelling! If you are familiar with Chicago’s neighborhoods, and the waves of immigration into the city, it would be an interesting read for anyone local. The rooming house was built in the late 1890’s by a Polish Immigrant who had to leave the old country for a variety of reasons. Through the reading of the diaries written by several occupants and boarders in the house, including the family members of the original owner/builder of the rooming house. Each person’s story is one of redemption, acceptance and learning to love others as family, even if they are not family. We are moved through the years; through wars, troubles, marriages, racial discrimination as the neighborhood on South Justine becomes Mexican, then Black. We see the treatment of a young woman who is pregnant but not married in the early fifties, and the treatment of a tenant who is gay. I could not put this one down.
Chill With A Book Readers…
A wonderful story of love and life of families living in the rooming house… Well written and great characters. Such an enjoyable read… An absorbing read. Set in a believable historical context. I became invested in the characters’ stories… Thoroughly enjoyable read, novel and interesting way of depicting the history of America and Chicago. In The Rooming House Diaries author Bill Mathis offers a story as large and compelling as Giant by Edna Ferber.
As if ripped from the headlines of today the Rooming House Diaries offer the stories of immigrants founding the America we know.
A Gripping Immigration Saga
Vibrant characters are written with compassion and care, spanning most of the last century this book is a wonderful blend of history filled with a brilliant cross section of race, religion and sexual orientations.
Highly recommended reading, this book should be on college reading lists! Amazon 5 Stars by James Brock
From the very first page, I realized I was in the hands of a gifted storyteller. What a cast of colorful characters who tugged at my heart while also frustrating me. The vivid details of Chicago really brought the story to life. The prose felt authentic to the characters and the pacing kept me glued to the story. Nicely done. Highly recommend. Amazon 5 Stars by Author Greg Renz
The author provided a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I’m very glad I read this book; it’s a lovely story with many interesting characters. I love multiple timeline historical fiction and The Diaries gave me that. So many stories from the same family made it easy to get to know them and become emotionally involved. I enjoyed reading each story and learning more from each writer. I really don’t have too many criticisms except for two, and those are just based on personal preference. Mainly, it’s about ratios. I don’t have any problem with gay people, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there were that many gay people all in one circle of people like that. Plus, back through this many decades, I really don’t believe that this many people, even in the same family, were that progressive in their thinking. It just got a little unbelievable, especially at the end. Other than that, the stories were engaging and I didn’t want to put the book down. Each writer added a little bit more info and a lot of their individual personalities. I’d like to believe that if modern society had this kind of connected family unit, we’d have fewer problems in the world. I really liked this book and would recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction, centered around people, as opposed to plot. Amazon 4 Stars by Ivan Friant
Face Your Fears
The Rockford Review
by Connie Kuntz
Insightful. Emotional. Relieving. Maddening. Deep. Brave. Urban. Rural. Didactic. Real. Bill Mathis’ novel is about homosexuality and disability, and coming of age and coming out, and growing up and growing wise; all with honesty that fluctuates between shocking and soft. There is cruelty, suicide, early death, and more. There are moments of humor, dysfunction, sexuality, homophobia, understanding, frustration, kindness, and terror. The artfully-written moments are artfully woven in this well-paced, impactful novel. With an emphasis on understanding different needs versus special needs, Mathis gently instructs his readers through powerful, inclusive storytelling.
Reviews by Amos Lassen
What is Normalcy?
Over the years that I have been reviewing, I have come across several books that stun me and among them are the thrilling fiction and nonfiction of Edmund White, the lyrical prose of Andre Aciman, the gorgeous poetry Emmanuel Xavier and the journalistic skills that Robert Fieseler in “Tinderbox”. I am now going to add “Face Your Fears” by Bill Mathis to that list of books that I cannot imagine being without. The prose is beautiful, the characters are real people who we come to know and love and the idea is brilliant.
Some of you may know that I have, of late, become active in making the world a better place for those with disabilities and this has come out of a friendship with Lisa, a member of my temple who is totally blind. I was never aware that those with disabilities are treated different than those who are “normal” but I have seen it time and time and it break my heart especially because there is not one person who has a disability that chose to be that way. I have seen bus and train drivers ignore the fact that someone has a hard time getting on the train because they are blind and I have seen riders ignore the fact that someone with a disability is forced to stand while they are comfortably ensconced in seats reading their I-phones. Not all of us are so lucky to have bodies that work properly and those of us that do should help those who do not. All of this is taking us to my review of “Face Your Fears”, a book that dares to “challenge those traditional concepts of normalcy, family, disability and love”.
We meet Nate McGuire, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is being raised in a family of achievers. That should be plenty enough of a challenge but Nate has to be fed, dressed and toileted. He is a beautiful person who also has unique skills and abilities that he gradually becomes aware of. Jude Totsian is one of 10 children raised on a Iowa farm. He has no disability and can change diapers, cook, fix broken equipment and milk cows. He has discovered his vocation as a physical therapist. While these two guys are seemingly total opposites, they both experience tragic teen-age losses, deal with family tragedies, and accept who they are and make peace with what they have been dealt. They are also gay men and eventually end up together. I found that “Face Your Fears” forced me to reconsider the meaning of the world normal and understand that there are many degrees of the meaning of normal. Bill Mathis does not just share the stories of Nate and Jude but as the story builds, we get a look at how homosexuality was considered in Midwest America before the Supreme Court granted our equality. “…even in 1993, this whole area and school still isn’t ready to handle gays in a respectful manner. You must be careful. You must lead a double life. It’s not fair, but it is what it is”.
We are pulled into the lives of Nate and Jude and into their world where they realize that they are so different from others. We come to understand that they see three reasons for this; physical disability, sexuality and family confusion. It is not enough to have special needs, there are issues of sexuality. We see the challenges that they face and we understand them. In doing so, we fall in love with them, see what they see and feel what they feel. We meet both Nate and Jude as youngsters and are with them through adulthood sharing their lives. This is a love story that is replete with strong characters and who triumph over what has held them back. We have had so many coming-of-age stories and coming out stories that it is wonderful to have one that is different and touches our emotions. I could feel myself both smiling and shedding tears as I read.
The novel is told by Nate and Jude in alternating chapters written in the first person. I found myself waxing nostalgic over my own years as a teen as I read how they dealt with theirs. (Remember how much we all wanted to be in the “A” group only to discover that there was always an “A plus” group?). Teen years are traditionally a time of self-discovery and turmoil and being gay and disabled adds to the anxiety. We find ourselves on an emotional journey filed with intensity.
This is a character driven novel filled with nuanced character development of Nate and Jude and there are wonderful supporting characters, there’s a great range of fully formed characters from family members, friends to lovers, and it is through their interactions that we see and examine their family and social dynamics.
As the story alternates narrators, we join them on their journey and as we do we want them to succeed at everything they do. I know that I felt early on that I wanted them to be together. Nate and Jude stay with us after we close the covers. Like I said earlier, we live what Nate and Jude live and we also get a chance to learn about their families. I can imagine that it was not easy for writer Mathis to balance the differing perspectives and he does a very fine job of it. I love this book so much that I am rereading it now.
Windy City Reviews with Chicago Writers Association
Reviewed by Renee James.
In Face Your Fears, author Bill Mathis tells the story of Nate McGuire and Jude Totsian, from each man’s childhood, to his earliest rumblings of attraction to other males, to the adult life events and romances that eventually lead them to each other. It is a novel with significant flaws in craftsmanship and pace, but it has redeeming qualities that recommend it, especially its gentle and touching telling of how gay men experience life, love, and the search for happiness.
Nate and Jude alternate the narration of this story. Nate has Cerebral Palsy, which renders him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. He is completely dependent on others for even the most basic life functions but compensates with a caustic wit, a loud voice, and a willingness to wield both qualities without fear or reservation in any situation. His suburban-Chicago family is supportive and well-heeled enough to make sure he has the services he needs.
Jude is ten years older than Nate and provides a sharp contrast: he’s athletic, active, and fully integrated into his conservative Iowa farm community as a child. Yet he feels a growing distance from that community as he becomes aware of his sexual orientation and how his family and community would regard that.
The contrast between the two boys’ journeys of self-discovery is profound and one of the elements that most recommend this book. Nate’s life is a succession of physical challenges non-handicapped people might have never imagined—getting a meal, getting to the bathroom in time and needing someone to clean him up afterwards, and dealing with the stares and discomfort his presence causes when he ventures into new places and situations. He deals with these embarrassments by being loud and bold, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes like a brat.
Jude is Nate’s opposite in many ways. He’s physically gifted, relatively quiet, and obedient. He goes along to get along.
The contrasts continue as each boy reaches puberty and begins feeling a sexual attraction to other males. Outspoken Nate wastes little time telling his loving and supportive family that he’s gay, while Jude begins a cycle of many years of a secret life by keeping his sexuality a secret.
The scenes depicting each boy’s early experiences with attraction and love are deep and moving, making this book the kind of read that will linger in one’s memory for many months and perhaps years to come.
As Nate and Jude evolve into their adult years, Face Your Fears becomes more of a romance novel, with frequent twists and turns, angst, and tears in each man’s struggles for love and fulfillment.
While the portraits of Nate and Jude in their early years make this book special, the lapses in storytelling craft slow it to a crawl in places. Author Mathis tells his story in first-person, present tense, which is effective, but it often lapses into long passages filling in back story in past tense. Some transitions in time and place are unclear. And some of the dialogue would be better condensed into summary narration to keep the story moving.
Despite these shortcomings, Face Your Fears rewards readers with moments that are deeply engaging and can change one’s understanding of the world in which we live—a quality not always found in today’s most popular fiction.
Charles G. Kesner
5 Stars on Amazon
Found the book to give excellent insight into coming out with a disability and living with a disability. The characters were interesting the story was fun and kept me engaged. Bill Mathis is very descriptive in his writing. I definitely recommend this book
5 Stars on Amazon
Buy this book so you can read and re-read it as often as you like.
It’s a wonderful tale that both moves and touches your soul.
I highly recommend it.
5 Stars on Amazon
This is a heartwarming story about two young men trying to find their identity and happiness. It moved well and, by the end, left me feeling as if they were old friends of mine
whose career was spent working with disabled persons.
Bill, wanted to let you know that I finished your book and an happy to tell you that I enjoyed it very much. I liked the characters and found them interesting and I also enjoyed the way you handled sexuality and characters with disabilities. You have a very descriptive style and it was much appreciated by me. The story was a lot of fun to follow. wish you much success on your future writings.
Just finished your book and it left me with a good feeling. I read Ronni’s comments on the back and after working with special ed students in both elementary and high school I agree that it should be required reading for anyone who works with them. Keep up the good work.
I finished Face Your Fears 8 days ago and Nate and Jude remain with me. We left them in 2015 – I want a postscript or epilogue! I want to know how everyone is doing, including David & Bart, grandparents Anna & Peter, everyone! You created great characters, Bill, and they remain with me. Congrats!
Jenni Herrick, Shepherd Express, Milwaukee, WI
Growing up different is never easy, but at least until recently, growing up with same-sex attraction was especially dangerous. The opprobrium was almost universal, the bullying inevitable. In Bill Mathis’ touching novel, Face Your Fears, the realization of sexual preference and physical disability among teenagers in the 1990s makes for a compassionate and sometimes humorous story.
5 Star Amazon Review by iasamni
This is a compelling story that emphasizes the humanity of everyone we meet. It is a story of love, family dynamics, friendships and all the messiness those each entail. The story starts in the early lives of the main characters and moves the reader forward to their coming of age into adulthood. I’d recommend this to others, for sure.
Just finished your book. It’s amazing! Can’t wait for the next one. Your fan.
5 Star Amazon Review by James Brock
Face Your Fears , a novel of a lifetime of love. With strong, compelling characters this story follows the very different lives of two young men from childhood into young adulthood as they grow to face who they are and who they will become. Tragic to triumphant by turn this sweeping saga is a modern classic!
5 Star Amazon Review by Csilla
This book is a heartfelt coming of age and coming out story of our times and so much more! Using alternating, first-person perspective narratives of its two gay male protagonists, the novel gives us an in-depth insight of the emotional turmoils of not only being a teenager but being a teenager and gay/gay and with a disability as well. The writer takes us on an emotional journey with intense highs and lows but the tone remains wonderfully restrained, allowing the readers to develop our own emotional responses. In addition to the nuanced character development of the main protagonists, there’s a great range of fully formed characters: family members, friends, and lovers, and through their interactions we get to examine their family and social dynamics. In the Author’s Note, the writer expresses his intent of presenting one of the main characters as having different needs and not special needs. I feel this intent was fully achieved, and I feel I got to know these families and the two main characters. I kind of wish they were my friends.
Alyssa Norsby on Goodreads, 4 Stars!
This is one of those books that I think all people should read to become more compassionate and open minded to all the “different” people you may encounter in your life. Bill Mathis does a wonderful job of telling you the story of some “different” people with a funny, thoughtful, lovely story of two boys who turn into men and their story and all those who impact it. This book is delightful and worth the read.
Tom Slater on Goodreads, 5 Stars!
A wonderful telling of two young men finding each other, falling in love, and building a future together. Rich in details, I gained a deeper appreciation of the challenges a person with severe disabilities faces. How do you become an independent person when you depend on others to assist you with your most basic needs? This is not the correct question. It is a question an able-bodied person can easily ask. A better question is how can Nate, a kid with CP growing into manhood, become the best that he can be. The author describes how this can be: by the love and support of family, whether biological or chosen, and community. This is a well written novel with wonderfully developed characters and a beautiful message.
Author, leader of Beloit Public Library Night Writers group
This book grew out of one story, a severely handicapped kid kicking a urinal down rows of seats at White Sox Stadium. Bill Mathis was not only a witness, but he was the chief chaperone for the group of handicapped youths he brought to the game.
Bill told the story to all of us at Stateline Night Writers — a writers group in Beloit, Wisconsin — and we laughed. And then we saw over the next months how he worked that story of Nate and a second character he created-Jude-into a gay romance story that was alternately devastating and celebratory.
It’s not my book, I admit it at the top. But if gay literature rings bells for you, you’ll find Face Your Fears a helluva good read.
It’s Bill’s second novel that I look forward to — Rooming House Diaries. It’s finished, and he’s now shopping it around to publishers. Masterful, brilliant writing in this book. Stories filled with pathos, joy, and, yes, tragedy, too.
Comments from the Beloit Public Library Book Discussion Group September 26, 2018, Beloit, WI:
Enjoyed the dialogue, it showed the story and explained the situation quickly…I learned a lot about disability and being gay…I was hesitant to start reading Face Your Fears having just completed a rather laborious LGBTQ book, but I was immediately hooked and couldn’t put it down, I loved it…The differences between the two main characters was startling and really contributed to the book…Your book discussion guide question dealing with income and means relative to a disabled person’s quality of life was eye opening…I was shocked when (a secondary character) died!Why?…You obviously have a good understanding of big families, disability and different characters…It was like reading about real people, the kind you have coffee with or the neighbors across the street…I thoroughly enjoyed it, but in your next book you need to find other words to signify crying, the word was a little overused, though it’s a very up-beat book…I found it informative and entertaining…
I couldn’t put it down, had to finish it…I loved the ending, the rings… Don
I’m reading your book–some nights I keep reading so late I can hardly get up in the morning!!! Carol
Just finished reading the book. With grandsons who are 14 and 16 it was probably more info than I wanted to be thinking about as far as what teens are thinking about regarding sex. Whew! Seriously though, I was impressed with the detail and found it very informative. I was especially struck with your knowledge of the difficulties facing a wheelchair-bound paraplegic... Sue