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Book Review of Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir by Dora Dueck

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With the release of Return Stroke, author Dora Dueck adds the non-fiction genre of memoir to her impressive list of publications. In her writing career, Dueck has focused mostly on fiction (four books), preferring “made up” stories to explore faith and the truth about real things like suffering, secrets, and shame.

However, in Return Stroke, a reference to a lightning strike’s enormous electrical discharge to the earth and the subsequent flash of light that illuminates the surrounding space, she harnesses the dynamics of lightning to explore her life story. It’s a dialogue. “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.” 

Return Stroke is a collection of personal essays in the first half of the book and a memoir in the second half. In the essays, one of which includes a harrowing encounter with lightning, Dueck reflects on her life experiences and engages a wide range of ideas that they illuminate—the art of writing, motherhood, the death of a spouse, the ethics of biography, a child’s coming-out. 

In the memoir section, she recounts the adventure of leaving Canada to live In Paraguay in the 1980s. She and their young children accompany her husband for his community development assignment with Indigenous peoples. The experience provides an opportunity for her to connect with her husband’s family of origin and to appreciate life in the Paraguayan Mennonite colonies.

In both the essays and the memoir, Dueck offers readers space to lift their eyes from the text occasionally and to contemplate some aspect of their own lives. Like lightning’s return stroke, she models how readers can process their experiences and derive insights to illuminate next steps. “How wonderful,” she says, that our “bits of existence, no matter how ordinary, are available for further contemplation—seeing patterns, facing into inevitable death, enjoying the playful circularity of then and now.”

Dueck’s writing is crisp and sparkling, each sentence well-crafted, inviting readers to embrace change in their own lives. Changing one’s mind need not be feared. “The essence of life is change—sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, sometimes chosen, sometimes uninvited—whatever name one may use for change, the very process of living creates a story full of plot.”

Return Stroke is a powerful book for people of faith, especially those in the second half of life, who are looking for a companion with whom to process their own life story.

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