Poems & Essays

06 Jul

Book Review: Paris in Oakland

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Reviewed by Leslie Wibberley

When I was given the opportunity to review documentary filmmaker, Eliza Hemenway’s book, Paris In Oakland, I jumped at the chance. As a medical professional I was immediately intrigued with this story about a confusing and serious condition called Lyme disease.

Lyme disease, also know as Lyme borreliosis, is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the Borrelia type, transmitted to humans most often by the blacklegged tick. Historically, this syndrome has been a challenge to diagnose, and even harder to treat. Symptoms are not consistent and often vary between individuals.

My plan was to give this book a quick perusal prior to sitting down to read in earnest, just to get a quick understanding of what Eliza was trying to achieve with her story.

However, from the opening scene Eliza’s compelling narrative pulled me in and I couldn’t stop reading. I read the entire book, albeit at 120 pages quite a short one, in an entire sitting.

Paris in Oakland is the story of unending faith, of a mother’s powerful love for her daughter, and a family’s struggle to cope with the medical community’s ignorance of a confusing and often overlooked illness, Lyme Disease.

Eliza’s impassioned account of her daughter’s debilitating illness and her family’s efforts to find proper medical care for her is a compelling read. The story begins with Katherine at a crisis point, suffering from a life threatening infection, travelling via ambulance to a hospital where she had, up to that point been unable to achieve proper medical care.

Beginning with the immediacy of her daughter’s medical crisis, Eliza easily draws the reader into that terrifying time. As a mother, I can imagine nothing more devastating that the knowledge that your child may die and there is nothing you can do about it. My heart was breaking along with Eliza’s as she rode through the night in that ambulance, her daughter struggling for life in the back.

Eliza then recalls a youthful fantasy of the child she might have one day have, followed by a glimpse into the glorious childhood she thought she was giving her daughter. Living in the country and having the opportunity to run free through the surrounding woods, Eliza never anticipated exposing her daughter to a potentially life threatening illness.

The story shifts back and forward in time, taking the reader to Katherine’s first symptoms, and the confusion and worry this brings the family, back to the moment of her acute medical crisis, then back to the family’s journey to find a diagnosis and treatment. Each shift brings us closer to the book’s beginning and Katherine’s final medical crisis.

This narrative style is repeated throughout the book. I found myself vacillating between between fear for Katherine’s life and anger at the medical community’s ineptitude. I could only imagine how frustrating it was for Eliza to have her child’s medical condition belittled and being told that she was just malingering, out of shape, and even depressed.

Eliza she refuses to accept the doctor’s explanations. Katherine is in pain, real pain, and Eliza will stop at nothing to help ease her suffering. As I went on this journey with Eliza, seeing her powerful faith and commitment to Katherine, I questioned my own ability to persevere in the face of so many challenges. Would I have given up, or, like Eliza, moved heaven and earth to save my child? I can only hope I would have found the strength to be as formidable a force as her.

Trying to convince the doctors of the validity of a diagnosis of Lyme disease proves to be a formidable challenge. Time and time again the conservative medical community seems unwilling to consider Lyme disease as a possible explanation for Katherine’s symptoms, despite her having all of the classic symptoms. Important testing, which may have even more clearly confirmed Katherine’s diagnosis, was denied by the doctors treating her. When the family had these tests performed by an alternate source, the doctors refused to consider their validity.

Curious to determine if we have these same challenges in Canada, I did a little research on my own. I was happy to see that the Government of Canada has an entire website dedicated to Lyme Disease, with treatment options laid out and clearly supported by our medical plans. Further research indicated that most states in the U.S. are very aware of Lyme disease and have an excellent protocol in place to deal with this issue. I can only assume that Eliza’s experience is an unusual one, due in part to the small incidence of this disease in the area in which she lived.

Unfortunately, because of the refusal of Katherine’s doctors to provide her with the care she needs, the family is forced to seek expensive alternative care. Struggling under this heavy debt load, they turn to their church and prayer for support.

This support comes in a multitude of forms, not only from their church, but from the nursing staff who stay by Katherine’s side, from a janitor who prays with the family, from the families of Katherine’s fellow patients at the hospital, and from Katherine herself, whose powerful faith and calm acceptance of her own illness helps to calm her frantic mother.

Eliza never gives up hope, and when Katherine is ultimately cured, the family rejoices. Whether by medicine, faith, or both, it is up to the reader to decide what brings about Katherine’s miraculous recovery.


E. Hemenway author photo



Eliza Hemenway has a M.A. in media studies and has worked in photography, film and radio. She directed the documentary film Uncommon Knowledge and was the founder and director of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. Hemenway has served as a judge on numerous film festivals and was an independent film reviewer for KRCB-FM, National Public Radio. She is currently living in Northern California caring for her family and serving as a group leader for Bible Study Fellowship International.




Our reviewer Leslie Wibberley is physiotherapist by profession, a slightly maddened mother to two outstanding young women and one slightly insane cocker spaniel, and wife to a loving and extremely tolerant husband. Writing has always been her passion but one she has only recently re-committed her life to. With one middle grade novel complete, one young adult novel in the throngs of revision, and numerous short stories and personal essays lying in repose in her beloved MacBook Air, she is now proud to call herself a writer. Her article RAISING A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE recently won 6th place in Writer’s Digest annual contest.

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