BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, November 2015
Home Is Burning is perhaps the funniest book about dying I’ve ever read. Dan Marshall deftly chronicles the months he and his four siblings dealt with the terminal illness of not one but both of their parents. His beloved father, Bob, has held the family together for more than a decade while his mom, Debi, fights non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So when Bob is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), it’s a punch in the gut for a family already dealing with bad news.
Marshall, 25, moves home to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles, where his public relations career was blossoming and he had a serious girlfriend. He joins his brother Greg, fresh out of undergrad, and sister Tiffany, already burned out from dealing with the parents, to care for Bob as his disease progresses faster than any of them could have expected. Within months, Bob goes from running marathons and shuttling his younger daughters, Chelsea and Michelle, to school and dance class to being unable to lift his arms or breathe without a respirator.
So what’s possibly funny about all that, you ask? For one, the Marshall clan has one of the filthiest collective mouths in history. Even Debi chimes in with well-placed f-bombs from the chemo chair. They also have a pitch-black sense of humor that holds them together through the worst time of their lives. When Bob insists on going to daughter Michelle’s hearing on a drinking violation—no matter that he can barely speak—Marshall’s response is, “Really? Why don’t you rest up so you can try to not die later today?”
Bob is so insistent on getting to that court date, Marshall realizes, because “the disease made it so he could no longer parent his children the way he wanted to. He could no longer drive them to school. He could no longer patiently help them with their homework. . . . But he was still our dad. He wasn’t dead yet. He was still capable of flashes of greatness, flashes of his old self.”
Home Is Burning packs a wallop. Marshall doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of how a horrific illness wreaks havoc on his dad’s body, and he takes an unflinching look at how real families fall apart—and pull together—in their own ways.