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02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review: Held in the Light: Norman Morrison's Sacrifice for Peace and His Family's Journey of Healing

The name Norman Morrison appears often as a hushed aside in discussions of self-sacrifice, a footnote in the history of the Vietnam War.

On November 2, 1965, Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker from Baltimore, drove with his one-year-old daughter, Emily, to Washington, D.C. In protest of the war, he doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire outside Robert McNamara's Pentagon office. Emily was unharmed.

Morrison's self-immolation was seen as both a hopeful and a desperate act, sparking feelings of both empathy and outrage across a nation that had already seen its share of death. At the time, little was known of his life other than his religious affiliation and the graphic nature of his protest. Even less was known about the family he left behind.

In her new memoir, Held in the Light: Norman Morrison's Sacrifice for Peace and His Family's Journey of Healing, Morrison's widow, Anne Morrison Welsh, paints a stark and deeply moving picture of her family's private world and of the void left by his death.

The memoir -- an astutely detailed articulation of ideas first presented in a 2005 pamphlet published by Quaker-affiliated Pendle Hill Publications -- artfully dodges the cliché of optimism in the face of adversity. It methodically details the disparate intimacies and decades-long unraveling of a family facing the worst kind of despair.

At the same time, Welsh's subsequent story of her family's journey to Vietnam thirty years after Morrison's death serves as a prescient reminder of the lingering wounds of the Vietnam War. Her family's struggle to make peace with his act is a personal quest, but it also serves as a microcosm of America's struggle to heal from that war and to cope with the new wounds it is suffering from Iraq.

For Welsh, life after Norman is made up of strange minutiae and startling dichotomies. The night of his death, Welsh learns that although her husband is gone, the objects that retain his memory still exist: his wallet, his wedding ring, his barely singed Harris Tweed jacket, his daughter, unharmed. The couple's last meal, a simple lunch of grilled cheese and French onion soup, becomes a totem of pain: "To this day, I cannot eat French onion soup. It tastes too much like loss," writes Welsh.

Although her husband's death was by fire, Welsh finds grief unbearably cold. It is an evocative and haunting metaphor. As she rides to Washington to pick up Emily, she is "stunned and frozen, not knowing what to think or feel." That glacial remove is something Welsh finds she cannot shake, even when she must tell her children of their father's death.

"I know now that we should have cried our hearts out together," she writes. "Because we did not, our family remained in a state of frozen grief for years."

Welsh attempts to fit these stark images of the first days without Norman into a larger framework: memories of their childhoods, their romance and marriage, and the years after Norman is gone. Some of the narrative threads, such as descriptions of their upbringings and their marriage, feel rushed, more like the obligatory imparting of facts than revealing of character and motivation. Others, such as the descriptions of her son Ben's battle with cancer and the family's 1999 trip to Vietnam, are utterly absorbing, brimming with emotional detail that masterfully avoids veering into sentimentality.

The warp and weft of the competing narrative threads in Welsh's memoir are ambitious, if not always successful. The result is a book whose story is richly compelling, if sometimes unevenly paced and plotted. It is unclear what Hollyday's role was in crafting the memoir, but it is clear the story far outweighs the book's minor structural flaws.

Welsh's description of 16-year-old Ben's deathbed scene, for example, is interspersed with both the profound and the profane: amidst his final breaths, Ben screams "It's not fair!" His nurse, meanwhile, does her job, giving him medication to relax and making sure he is comfortable.

The description Welsh offers of that loss is achingly simple: "I had grown up believing in a fair and reasonable world," she writes. "But my trust in such a world was shattered again by Ben's death, as it had been by Norman's."

Welsh's lush descriptions of Vietnam, from subtle evocations of place to the stories of how Vietnamese were so touched by Norman's sacrifice that he became a martyr there, naturally evolve into a catharsis in a Hanoi hotel room.

"I began to grieve deeply, to moan and keen Norman's passing," she writes. "I let out all the collected emotions - grief, bitterness, guilt, sadness, and, yes, anger. I wailed and raged at Norman for leaving me at the age of thirty with such challenges, and for abandoning his children. I felt completely alone."

On occasion, Welsh also allows others to speak in her stead. The book is peppered with excerpts from letters, lyrics from songs, and poems. This technique sometimes weakens a narrative, but in Welsh's case, it bolsters it. The integration of these works provides a diligent witness to truth and serves as a humble homage to the notion that Norman's story does not just belong to Welsh and her children, but to the world.

In the end, Welsh writes that she is able to make peace with the story. Norman's sacrifice, she finds, has proven not to be just a brief, terrible flame from one November day in 1965, but a lasting light, "a candle, perhaps, in the darkness - that shows the way that we cannot foresee." Norman's life, she writes, bears witness to the Quaker philosophy of "letting your life speak."

After so much loss, says Welsh, it is a relief: "The pain, or fear, or hate, has to be acknowledged and given to God. Then grace comes like a balm, like holy ointment that can start the healing process."

This review first appeared in the January 13, 2009 issue of The Christian Century.

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