All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
As Tod Wodicka’s All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well opens, Burt Hecker is taking part in celebrations for the nine-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hildegard of Bingen, nun, prophet, and composer. Members of the group with which he is traveling are reenacting the hermetic life of an anchorite, sequestered for a few days in an isolated tent. Although Hecker is on the outside, shutting the other members away from the world, he is, for all intents and purposes, an anchorite in the twentieth century. His beloved wife, Kitty, has died of cancer, compounding the disarray of his life. Tolerant and loving, Kitty had been his anchor in a modern world where Hecker has never really belonged. Founder of the Confraternity of Lost Times Regained, Hecker has attempted to live in medieval times, wearing the clothes, eating the food, making and using the artifacts of that era, all while obsessively striving not to be out of period (OOP). He has gathered around him a small group of equally dedicated reenactors, who meet periodically to live as fully as possible a medieval life.
The irony is that Hecker has spent most of his adult life OOP, with Kitty acting as his bulwark against the modern world. Kitty ran a successful period hotel, the Mansion Inn, while Hecker lurked in the background, having abandoned his training as a high school history teacher. Instead, he devoted himself to recovering the lost skills and arts of the medieval period, assisted in this by Tristan, his son and initially eager follower. His daughter, June, on the other hand, had long since rejected everything her father stood for, striving to be as modern as possible, becoming an obsessive fan of the television series Star Trek and all forms of science fiction. As an adult, she marries a dull but modern man and moves across the United States, as far from her father as possible. She refuses to speak to him, and she encourages her children to fear their crazy grandfather.
As he grew older, Tristan came under the influence of his grandmother, Anna Bibko, mother of Kitty. Daughter of Polish immigrants who originally embraced all things American, she has gradually turned back to her roots, among the neglected Lemko people from the Carpathian Mountains. From her and from his travels to her ancestral land, Tristan has learned the music and the customs of the Lemko. Just as his father lives in the Middle Ages, Tristan vigorously embraces all things Lemko, until finally he flees the family home and disappears in Europe.
Completely unhinged by Kitty’s death, Hecker finally finds himself in court, agreeing to take a plainchant workshop to deal with his anger-management issues. It is then he hatches a grand plan, breathtaking in its scope and seemingly out of character for him. The Mansion Inn has been sold, and Hecker is traveling to Germany with the plainchant workshop members to celebrate the nine hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hildegard of Bingen. However, no one knows that his ticket is one way and that he is going to try to find his missing son.
Hecker’s journey from the New World to the Old World is, in fact, a journey from the past into the present, as he recalls his lifefrom his first meeting with Kitty, his strained relationship with her mother Anna, and his attempts to be a good father to his children. All this is set alongside his experiences at the anniversary celebrations and the performances of his workshop group, which are, he realizes, unpolished but utterly sincere.
Hecker’s memories bring back to life his daughter’s increasing disenchantment with her father’s behavior and his son’s increasing preoccupation with his grandmother’s heritage. Hecker strongly suspects that his mother-in-law’s intense relationship with Tristan is a means of getting back at him for not being the financially successful all-American husband she imagined for her daughter, even though Hecker and Kitty were clearly a love match. The most poignant memory involves the time when Burt was shut out of the house while his wife was dying because of his erratic behavior and forced his way in to spend the precious final hours with her.
Traveling deeper into Europe, revisiting his own life and his own struggle with being in and out of period, Hecker finally arrives in Prague, where, according to a tipoff from Lonna, his son Tristan is now working as a musician. Hecker assumes that Tristan is still performing traditional folk music, and it comes as a shock to discover that his son, now calling himself Tim, is more aggressively in period with the present day than Hecker could ever have imagined. He finds himself in a club, watching his barely recognizable son perform music Hecker can barely comprehend. Their first meeting is tense and unsuccessful. However, finally, with the help of Tim’s girlfriend, Lenka, and Lonna, who has followed Hecker to Europe, the family gathers again, joined, unexpectedly, by June, who is in the process of divorcing her husband, and unbelievably Anna, who speaks only in her native tongue and glares malevolently at Hecker.
This is no happy reunion. June demands that Hecker buy back the Mansion Inn because she has set her heart on living in it, and Tim, having finally escaped his father’s orbit, does not know how to respond to his reappearance. The attempted reconciliation disintegrates, and Hecker finds himself sitting in the stairwell of his son’s apartment block, in the dark, listening to the music of Hildegard of Bingen pouring out of the flat. Despite everything that has gone wrong, Hecker becomes convinced that there is still hope for him and for his family. It is impossible to tell if he is just deluding himself, yet, uncertain of his future, Hecker conjures a vision of the anchorite Hildegard that bolsters his hope. At this point, it is not difficult to understand why, despite all of Hecker’s infuriating ways, Kitty loved him.
Booklist 104, no. 8 (December 15, 2007): 23.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 14.
Library Journal 133, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 91.
New Criterion 26, no. 8 (April, 2008): 71-73.
New Statesman 136 (July 30, 2007): 57-58.
The New Yorker 83, no. 45 (January 28, 2008): 83.
Publishers Weekly 254, no. 46 (November 19, 2007): 36.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 21, 2007, p. 20.