A few years before my mother died, I began interviewing her and making notes. After her death in January 2010, I discovered a treasure trove: 200 years of our family history locked in the chickenhouse—about seventy feet from the old farmhouse where she and I had visited.
Over the next eight years I studied and catalogued thousands of pages from letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and a “Mental Health Journal” my grandmother kept. Then I began writing.
These documents became the basis for the “Chickenhouse Chronicles” series. Book 1, Herman, was about my stepfather. The second book, Pawns, follows our family after Herman and my mother were married. Although this is a story I lived, the experiences have new meaning looking back decades later through the lens of my research and a better understanding of the undiagnosed mental illness and PTSD my mother and stepfather were dealing with.
Pawns, a memoir with almost 100 illustrations, resurrects a decade of family dysfunction on an isolated farm in northern Minnesota.
Musty letters, documents, and sixty-year-old photo negatives conjured memories as Affield pored over them. Herman, 1940s Lonely Hearts Search, Affield’s first book in the series, chronicled his stepfather’s early life and search for a wife. In a grainy negative beneath the magnifying glass, Affield saw his mother as the beautiful, mentally ill young woman transplanted in 1949 from her cosmopolitan New York roots. She stands beside the lilac that the author will land next to a few years later after jumping from a second story window to escape her fury. In another image, his mother’s fixed grin belies the truth as she stares into the camera. Memories of a murdered puppy and his stepfather’s rage rose to the surface as Affield studied a blurred image of the corncrib the dogs were tied beneath at the farm. Once again, he was a little boy perched on the house roof with a smuggled camera snapping pictures of the barnyard, manure smell permeating the scene. Affield rediscovered his little brother—forty years dead—and recalled two children romping through the swamp, chasing frogs. In another picture he discovered himself wedged between his brothers and sister in a leaky rowboat and flashed back to the summer his mother hid from her abusive husband in a cabin perched above Lake Chelan in the Cascade Mountains.
Faded photos and hand-written birth dates on the backs reveal a woman who feared forgetting her children after she was committed to a mental institution, her children in foster homes. More than fifty years after the fact, as Affield researched this biography, he discovered that Beltrami County Juvenile Court emancipated him—while he was fighting in Vietnam. (Wendell Affield is a 2017 recipient of the Minnesota Humanities Center “Veterans’ Voices Award” for his work with the underserved in his community.)