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Book review: "Dust to Dust" by Benjamin Busch

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Benjamin Busch grew up in rural New York State south of the Adirondacks. He ran through the woods, made forts and played war. Later, as an officer in the Marines, he served several tours in Iraq. Betsy Kepes has this review of his memoir, Dust to Dust.

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Betsy Kepes
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When he was thirteen, Benjamin Busch chopped down a three-foot diameter hemlock with a hatchet. He’d found a beautiful island of forest near his family’s new home in Sherburne, NY. and he needed a bridge. Busch writes, “Hacking is not like sawing. The wound is made large, and it feels like an act of killing.” After two days of work the tree fell, creating the bridge Busch had imagined but destroying the beauty that had drawn him to those woods to begin with.

In his memoir, Dust to Dust, Busch explores the line between construction and destruction. The son of novelist Frederick Busch, the younger Busch writes, “I gained comprehension of my environment by throwing myself against it. Digging, cutting, climbing, stacking. What my father built with words, I built with pieces of the earth, stones, and wood.”

Busch organizes his memoir into chapters with titles like “water, metal, stone, blood and ash.” Each chapter is composed of short images from childhood and from his years in the military. At first the kaleidoscope of scenes is dizzying, but it fits the character of the book, the memories of a man who has a hard time sitting still.

The childhood memories in the book will be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small village when kids entertained themselves, loosely supervised by busy parents. Busch decided to collect bottle caps and spent two years bicycling to a roller rink and various bars and stores, amassing over 300,000 caps, hoping to find a million. But when the family moved his father decided the collection had to go to the transfer station. Busch writes:

“My father and I backed up to the platform and opened the trunk. He removed boxes from the car and poured the caps in a pile on the floor. I refused to help. There was that sound. The sound of frail bells and their echo in the covered metal space. The man who pushed garbage into the trench watched with his head cocked to one side. He knew that he was witnessing something peculiar, but he didn’t ask. Even my father poured them slowly, beginning to recognize the enormity of the effort to gather them. The pile rose in the center of the building until the last box was emptied. We stood looking at it. I could feel my father’s regret. He apologized, finally, saying he never meant me disrespect in the decision to end, for me, my quest. We got back in the car and drove slowly home.”

In the second half of the book, Busch includes more memories of his time in Iraq. He assists in digging up a mass grave, the bones dry from murders twenty years ago, and he guards a trailer filled with fresh bodies. When a truck in his convoy is blown up, he spends all night guarding the remains of his friends, charred bodies in a pit in the road. Busch writes “I had found this danger because I had sought it. I had no one but myself to blame for discovering it to be ugly…My days were not condemned by the things I had expected. It was the pointlessness and the faces of the people who were left to live in the violence we had brought with us or had drawn to us.”

Dust to Dust was a pleasure to read, though sometimes Busch pushes a little too hard to find meaning. In his best scenes he describes vividly the intense joy of building a snow fort, the excitement of preparing for war, the shock of losing a parent. His father would be proud.

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