The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn

salt path

I was talking with some writers the other day about evoking emotion in our readers, and one asked if there could be too much emotion in a book. The incredible teacher/agent/writer Donald Maass, author of The Emotional Craft of Fiction, would say no; the problem is almost always that there isn’t enough.

Yet it’s true that sometimes I don’t have the emotional stamina for a particular book on that day. Sometimes what I need is something from what Dave King calls the gentle genre.

When I first heard of this memoir, I knew I had to read it. When Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lose their beloved Welsh farm, the one they’ve devoted decades to restoring and working, where they brought up their now-grown children, they are devastated. The long court battle to prevent their former friend from seizing their farm, lost finally on a technicality, has emptied their savings. No home, no job, no savings. In their 50s, being self-employed they have no work references, and after the court case no credit. Then they learn that Moth has a terminal illness. He might eke out a couple of years of increasing disability.

Winn writes so movingly of leaving the farm, choosing what few keepsakes to hang onto, unable to lean on their children who are in school or starter jobs that I was overwhelmed. I’ve been there myself: empty-handed, with no choice but to turn to a frayed social safety net. Yet right now, with so many griefs and losses and fears in real life, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to go through this with her.

Yet I had to read it. Homeless, their temporary solution is to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which winds around Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. They will have to sleep wild since they don’t have money for B&Bs or campgrounds, and they will have to subsist on minimal food bought with the £48 a week tax benefit that is their only income.

I walked part of this path with friends a couple of years ago and found it challenging enough, even with B&Bs and luggage transfer. So I had to know how they managed, what they encountered, how they were changed.

And they are changed. Winn doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties, yet finds space to describe the glories of the rocky headlands, the cliffs, the surging sea, the gulls and oystercatchers, the badgers and deer. The writing, like the path, is spare and occasionally glorious. She and Moth encounter quirky and often generous people on the path. And they find, as I did on a much smaller scale, that they are stronger—physically and emotionally—than they thought.

Their story moved me to tears. I cried at the beginning and at the end, for different reasons, filled with different emotions. Too much emotion? Not at all.

Have you read a memoir that taught you something about yourself?

Old New Worlds, by Judith Krummeck

Subtitled A Tale of Two Immigrants, this book is both a memoir and an historical reimagining. In February of 1815 Sarah Barker, formerly a servant, and her new husband George, a missionary, set sail from Portsmouth, England bound for South Africa.

Whatever we may think of missionaries and colonialism today, it was an extraordinarily courageous thing to do. It is a brave thing to embark on a marriage—how much more so when it means leaving behind your country and culture; knowing that you will rarely, if ever, be able to return for a visit; unsure of what you will find when you arrive.

Two hundred years later, Sarah’s great-great granddaughter, writer and broadcaster Judith Krummeck, newly married, left South Africa for the United States. (Full disclosure: Krummeck and her husband are friends of mine.)

With a gentle but assured touch, Krummeck explores that transition, showing this country from an outsider’s point of view. She looks at the nuances of belonging, of creating a home in a new place. Unlike Sarah, her experience is complicated by the possibility of return, for visits or perhaps even permanently.

Much of the memoir portion also invites us into her process of learning about her great-great grandmother, not just burying herself in library reading rooms, but figuring out how to walk the tightrope between being true to the time period and the urge to impose today’s values on the actions of her imagined great-great grandparents. To her relief, the records show that George Barker did in fact treat his parishioners with respect and tried to protect them from the colonial administration.

The book is well-researched, drawing on Barker’s letters and journals as well as other sources. An extensive bibliography is provided. For all that, Sarah’s life, her thoughts and feelings are undocumented. Krummeck explains that Sarah is almost never mentioned in George’s writings, so she has had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps.

Of course it is no surprise that so little is known about Sarah. At that time, the lives of ordinary women were not considered worth documenting. Indeed, it is only recently that historians have begun concerning themselves with ordinary life, much less the lives of women.

For Sarah’s story alone I love this book, as I love any that fill in that empty space in the shape of a woman. Entwining it with Krummeck’s physical and emotional adjustment to America adds depth and resonance to the themes explored here.

As the pandemic spread and stayed, most of us have had to rethink our ideas of home. We look at our once adequate spaces with new eyes, trying to gauge where work can be done, children can be schooled, perhaps even an infected family member isolated. I remember how, as a child in a large family, I was constantly seeking out spaces to be private. Confined to the house, many people are experiencing that now.

So it is a good time to consider what it means to be at home: the place where we are born and the one we choose, the house we create and the family we construct, the country we call home and the landscapes we inhabit. This delightful book reminds us of what we inherit and what we make for ourselves.

What does home mean to you?

Green Card & Other Essays, by Áine Greaney

green

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be home. Many people are working from home these days. All the years I worked in offices I desperately wanted to work from home. Even now I remember each and every snow day when I was allowed to work remotely as a sacred and blessed time.

I know there are many who struggle with this new reality, extraverts who miss the interaction with others. And it’s true that I valued being able to step down the hall and get Laura or Jonathan’s input on some task. Still, this being at home to me is nirvana, to be able every day to be in this space that I designed for myself.

But home is more than this house, this place we’ve carefully adapted to our needs. It is also the places where we suddenly and unexpectedly know we are where we belong. For me, that was the first time I crossed the Tappen Zee bridge into New England. And again that early morning landing in England, a March morning, frosty and cold. Faced with a standard transmission car with the gear shift on the opposite side and traffic patterns that challenged my orientation, still, for all that, I knew suddenly that I had come home. I was in the right place. Many return visits over the years have only confirmed that initial sense of belonging.

For Greaney, that’s not the point. These brief essays fold us into the experience of leaving one not-unloved-home for another, of trying to find your way in an alien culture where you don’t recognise most of the references and your accent is legitimate fodder for jokes.

Immigration is much in the news these days, but it’s important to notice, as Greaney points out, that there are plenty of immigrants who are welcomed without question. When someone who has been complaining about immigrants says to her “Oh, not you . . . We weren’t talking about you,” Greaney appropriately responds, “’English speaking? White?’”

Interactions like this show up the racism inherent in today’s discussions about immigration. A white friend of mine who emigrated from South Africa, likes to challenge people by saying, accurately enough, “I’m African-American.”

Greaney explores the lingering strangeness. Not just the bizarre experience of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., but also seeing what U.S. prom night is like versus a quiet 1970s mass after Leaving Cert exams, commuting among pumpkin and alfalfa fields, wondering if the New England Methodist church down the road might hold a way forward for a Catholic girl.

One of the most affecting essays in this collection calls on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn where

. . . once Elilís Lacey (the daughter) steps aboard that ship, there are two separate and mutually invisible narratives—the tale of Eilís in Brooklyn and that of her widowed mother and stay-at-home sister back in Enniscorthy. Between those stories is an emotional firewall that blocks all knowledge of the other’s experience and, by extension each other’s respective wounds and losses.

Any of us who have left our first home for a new and different world can identify with this dual storyline, this firewall: a parent who cannot or will not imagine our new lives. Excitement and terror and sadness swirled together to forge determination.

These are beautiful essays: short, intense, emotionally precise, moving. I loved the essay about the gifts her father slips to her as she is leaving to return to the U.S. “’You’ll need this over yonder,’” her says, and Greaney pulls us around to see, yes, oh yes, they are needed.

What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

Never Stop Dancing, by John Robinette and Robert Jacoby

Jacoby

An ordinary man at work on an ordinary day sits through the regular weekly meeting, gets a soda, talks with a co-worker. Then he hears someone say, “That’s John.” And sees a police officer looking at him.

On that clear and beautiful April day, John’s wife Amy was knocked down by a truck as she crossed a street and died.

His close friend Robert, a journalist and author of two books, wanted to help, but what can you do? What can you say?

What Robert did was suggest that he interview John several times over the course of the next year, John’s first year without Amy. Because their friendship included an openness and sharing considered unusual between men, Robert hoped the interviews would give John a safe space to talk about his feelings. He also thought that someday John’s two young children would want to know more about this first year without Amy, and that perhaps “John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on.”

And Robert himself, not unacquainted with loss and grief, was curious:

I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost.

In this powerful, if sometimes wrenching, joint memoir we move between Robert and John’s voices. Emotions are laid bare; the small and large moments—cleaning out Amy’s closet, signing the children up for Little League—are exposed. Robert says, “It felt like we were opening up the brutal places of human existence and emotion, holding things up for discovery and examination.”

Both John and Robert are smart, articulate and curious. They wrestle with the questions most of us struggle with in our lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does religion offer answers and comfort or just empty promises? Does grief ever fade? And if it does, have we betrayed our loved one?

It’s a remarkable book. John and Robert’s startling honesty and candor, holding nothing back, can’t help but open our hearts and ease our own empty places.

Most poignant are the scenes with John’s two young sons, four and seven, as they try to come to grips with their devastating loss. As John later says, he may someday find someone else to love and share his life with, but “My boys can never have another mother.”

Another devastating but comforting scene is when ten members of John’s church come to his home to sit with him shortly after Amy’s death. Curled on the floor, overwhelmed by grief, John feels them silently touching him, holding him. A laying on of hands. Held in that love and compassion he is able to find calm.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to step into the lives and hearts of these two men. Their story made me feel I’d opened the box and everything flew away except for one thing, and that one thing was love. By opening themselves to each other, John and Robert invite us into their community, to hold each other in love and compassion and to find peace.

Have you read a memoir that made you feel a part of something larger?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

doig

As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

True North, by Jill Ker Conway

True North

This sequel to The Road from Coorain begins in September of 1960, as Conway travels from Australia to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she will be a graduate student. She says:

The future of a woman alone in the world and the 1950s was a blank page, because no one I knew had lived that way, and the rules of the culture were clear that they shouldn’t. So I experienced my leave-taking as a farewell to the known, a jump off the edge of the world into an unknowable future.

From the weather to the customs—such as dinner being served at 5:30 pm, the time for nursery tea back home—she has to find her bearings in this new world. I love her descriptions of Cambridge, such as:

It was old, by any standard, and sparer, in a fashion I could not quite comprehend, than any urban landscape I’d yet seen.

and

I’d never thought there could be beauty in a pallet of gray and white, but suddenly I could see in the low slanting light, the bare branches, and the gleaming snow of an early winter afternoon images I’d seen before in a Rembrandt drawing but never properly understood.

She is buoyed up by the “easy good manners and cordiality” of the people she meets. She quickly finds herself in a group of like-minded women, most of them a year ahead of her. Best of all are the courses she plunges into for this next phase of her scholarly career. She adeptly describes the excitement of the ideas in her seminars and the individuals teaching them.

As a teaching fellow in her second year, she finds herself working for John Conway, a war veteran from Canada. Although she comes to their first meeting “prepared to be very businesslike,” they quickly veer into discussing their “shared experience of a first encounter with the United States.”

Reader, she marries him. Then he gets an irresistible offer to be on the faculty and a master at one of the colleges at York University in Toronto. They agree to take turns: ten years for his career, ten for hers, and they move to Canada. It is a good move for her as well. She becomes involved in college administration and, at the end of this book, is invited to become president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

I loved her descriptions of Toronto as well, where she has to adjust to a longer winter. Her insights into the Canadian view of the U.S. also intrigued me.

Unfortunately, she encounters some of the same prejudices she’d left behind in Australia. In fact, this last aspect became one of my greatest rewards in rereading this book. As she details her strategy for getting equal pay for herself; then all women faculty at the university, and then the other women working there—secretaries, lab technicians, cleaning women, career counselors—I remembered all those hard-fought battles, the ones we seem to be having to fight all over again.

She also talks about her work as a historian, writing about women’s roles, how they changed, and how the women themselves perceived their roles. Fascinating.

I’m eager to move on to A Woman’s Education, Conway’s third memoir, this one about her time at Smith College and one I’ve not read before. These books not only bring to life specific times and places, they chronicle the inspiring life of one woman on the cusp of major changes in our culture. Even better, they encourage the reader to consider and reconsider ideas and, perhaps, memories that speak to the issues we are struggling with today.

Have you read a memoir or biography that seems extraordinarily relevant today?

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

Coorain

Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

Educated, by Tara Westover

educated

As so often happens with books that have been hyped to the moon and back, I was underwhelmed by this memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Dysfunction comes in many guises. Here, it takes the form of a survivalist family in Idaho, Mormons so distrustful of the government that they hole up on their rural property, stockpiling food and guns for the expected “end times” and refusing medical help when injured.

It is Gene, a pseudonym for Westover’s father, whose paranoia drives this withdrawal from the world, taking the three older children out of school and not allowing the other four, of whom Tara is the youngest, to attend at all or even to have their births registered. Their mother is an obedient drone, who towards the end of the book finally begins to express other opinions when Gene isn’t looking, only to recant in his presence.

The thrust of the book is Westover emerging from her isolated and physically dangerous childhood, using education as her way out, getting all the way to a PhD from Cambridge. However, her journey away costs her not only her home but her family, who shun the worldly person she has become. Of course, by that time I couldn’t help but be baffled by how she kept going back to her appalling family, trying to make peace with them.

The overwhelming popularity of the book seems to be driven by the titillating details of their survivalist life. Having known some survivalists, I found that aspect of Westover’s family not as remarkable as the violence perpetrated by Gene and one of the older boys. The people I knew may have mistrusted the government but didn’t resort to machine guns and a cannon; they didn’t force their children into labor so unsafe they nearly lost limbs or their lives.

The descriptions of the injuries the children and Gene sustain, and treat only with herbal remedies—or, in the case of tonsillitis, sunlight—are so terrible that my suspension of disbelief wavered. I want to believe that Westover is telling the truth, and indeed she uses occasional footnotes with alternate versions of some incidents provided by others, yet it is had to believe that they could have survived such injuries without medical care.

I also struggled to accept that a girl who had never been schooled (at home or elsewhere), never read anything but the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a child’s picture book on science could teach herself enough during one winter to score sufficiently high to win a place at Brigham Young University—and then do well in all her courses.

Also, some things didn’t quite add up to the portrait of Gene as a survivalist. When Westover is trying to get financial aid, she uses her parents’ tax returns. Gene won’t let his children go to school, but pays his taxes? Also, while the younger children are forced to work in Gene’s scrapyard at home, Gene himself goes out building barns and the older boys work as truckers and other jobs out in the world. They have drivers’ licenses then. It seems obvious to me that Gene is not so much a paranoid survivalist as a power-hungry bully, a narcissist who sees his wife and children as peons under his iron control.

My patience was tried by Westover’s continued attempts to reconcile with the family who had shunned her and by her continued expression of love for the father who had inflicted so much damage on those he should have protected. As a friend of mine who endured an abusive childhood said, “Some parents don’t deserve to be forgiven. Just because they had you doesn’t mean you have to keep them in your life.” Yet even in the final pages Westover still seems to feel guilty about the breach between her and her family, especially her father, as though it were her fault.

While the prose flows smoothly, I never felt Westover emerge as a person in this book. From a distance I see her being tortured physically and emotionally. I see her sudden leap into extraordinary achievements. But that’s all. One of my book clubs agreed that they now knew what happened to her but didn’t feel that they knew her. They said that the descriptions of the shocking injuries and abuse were the most powerful and memorable parts of the book. That’s a shame. I’d hate to think that the book’s popularity is due to its gruesome descriptions of young people being hurt. I wish the excitement and joy of learning could have outshone the torture.

Have you read this hugely popular book? All three of my book clubs read it this year. What did you think of it?

A Balanced Life, by Patricia Schultheis

balanced life

I teach a lot of memoir classes and, as a freelance editor, help memoirists shape their stories. However, often people will tell me, “There’s nothing remarkable about my life. No one would want to read about it.”

I disagree. Sure, celebrities and politicians have a built-in audience for their memoirs. Some memoirists introduce us to cultures we know little about or let us experience extraordinary events with them. But those of us with even the most ordinary of lives have wrestled with the great questions of life and experienced a range of powerful human emotions. Each of us has lived in a unique constellation of cultures: family, community, world events.

This compelling memoir is of such a life. Looking back over seventy years, Schultheis invites us to experience moments both large and small with her: picnicking at the beach as a child, taking the hand of the man she will marry, caring for her sister in her last days. In vivid scenes she conjures not just the events, but the emotions swirling in them. In a few deft strokes she adds the context of the times.

Sometimes she frames a scene with a bit of scientific knowledge or philosophy, perhaps a legend or a description of some event. For example, near the end, as she grieves for the loss of her husband, she describes the origin of the Hale-Bopp comet and how she and Bill would watch for its return.

Before any of us ever were, we were held by ice. Scientists once thought that life sprang from Earth’s fiery core . . . But now some scientists believe that the midwife of life is ice. That as microscopic stardust-buds we were carried by comets and delivered to our earthen mother. Like interstellar storks, comets hurtled past the sucking gravity of the solar system’s giants and skirted the glowering, stony asteroids to reach this middling planet with a warm, green bosom.

No wonder Hale-Bopp twinkled with almost parental beneficence, as if locked in its frozen core it held some prior knowledge, some reassuring certainty about ourselves that we had yet to discover.

Much of this memoir is about ice. Schultheis uses figure skating as the line upon which she pins her scenes, giving a consistency and narrative arc to the diverse events of a lifetime. Despite decades of lessons and practice, she never attains more than a moderate competency on the ice, but she learns enough to admire the grace and power of the true athletes she encounters.

Moving easily across the years, she finds countless different ways to use the metaphor of ice skating to illuminate events. From the first life-changing gift of a pair of second-hand skates, to sharing the ice with Dorothy Hamill, to fulfilling the dream of skating at Rockefeller Plaza, Schultheis shares what skating has meant to her over the years. Each time she returns to the metaphor, she adds a new layer of meaning.

As an amateur figure skater myself, I love this aspect of the book. Although I am acquainted with the author via the Baltimore writing community we share, I had not realised before reading her book that we both skated at the same rink, though I think not at the same time, and knew some of the same skaters there. Someone who is not interested in skating might find the constant refrain tedious, though the author’s brief descriptions of the technical aspects of turns or edges or the skates themselves always pertain to and enhance her story off the ice.

I do think that everyone has a story to tell. Whether people will want to read it depends largely on the writer’s skill in crafting an engaging story. Here, Schultheis excels. Her writing—sometimes lyrical, always accessible—welcomes you in and carries you through the story, introducing you to new ideas, inviting you to examine your own life. This is a story to savor and remember and reread.

Have you read a story—fiction or memoir—with a particular metaphor running through it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.