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.
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.
Check back for forthcoming comments and reviews as they come in after the launch of The Rooming House Diaries.