“Census” by Jesse Ball— Father and Son

Ball, Jesse. “Census”, Ecco, 2018.

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often but every once in a while a book comes along that is both powerful and beautifully written. Such a book is Jesse Ball’s “Census”. I was totally riveted to each word as I read and it is a bit difficult to describe its emotional impact. Two unnamed characters, a father and a son set off on a journey after the death of the mother and the father’s receiving news from this doctor telling him that he his days are numbered. The father worries about who will take care of his son now that both parents will be gone. The son has Down syndrome and the father loves him deeply. He has no answer to this but he does want to see his country one last time so he signs on as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and he and his son set out. 

As they travel they find towns that are named only by letters and they encounter all kinds of people and the spectrum of human experience. They are welcomed into the homes of some of the people while others who have had bad past experiences with the census are unsure of their presence. They continue to move on to what are considered to be “the edges of civilization” where “the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay.” As they approach the town of “Z,” the father knows that he must deal with a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census and why do we have one? Is he complicit in its mission? How will he learn to say good-bye to his son? 

We often forget that death is a fact of life and we do not know how to deal with it. We certainly see that in the father here but this is about so much more than death—- we confront the themes of “free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love”. We are challenged to think about these even if we have never done so before and herein lies he beauty of “Census”.

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