Reader Comments & Reviews
The Rooming House Diaries
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.
Windy City Reviews
Wednesday, August 7, 2019 at 12:08PM
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.
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!
Maureen Bauer gave 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.
From the 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
Check back for forthcoming comments and reviews as they come in after the launch of The Rooming House Diaries.