Memory's Wake, by Derek Owens

In this extraordinary memoir, Owens delves into his mother's past, into the childhood memories that suddenly began to surface when his mother is in her fifties. While properly skeptical and examining the controversy around recovered memories, Owens comes to believe in the terrible abuse his mother, Judy, suffered at the hands of her mother. This woman, deserted by her husband and left with a detested five-year-old, takes out her frustrations on the child. Confronted later by Owens's father, she does not deny any of it.

The book is more than a woe-is-me or even a woe-is-she memoir. Bringing together history, photos, journals and narrative, Owens contrasts his mother's horrific early life with the enchanted childhood she provided for him and his sister on Golden Glow Drive. Gradually revealed in this mosaic is Judy's amazing ability to survive and to put behind her everything she had been taught about child-rearing in order to become the loving and attentive mother she herself had longed for.

Judy received some love from her grandmother, Anna, who gave her presents which Judy's mother made her burn as soon as Anna left. I couldn't help but wonder why Anna, why any of the aunts and uncles didn't do something about the abuse of this child. Owens traces the strain of violence in the family back through Anna's husband and cousin Raymond. Anna herself took refuge in her garden from her bully of her husband. Owens also says that “children were property then, it was not one's place to intervene” and refers to the Protestant ethic of the time that called for extensive use of the rod in raising children.

He pulls back to offer some local historical context. Judy grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, where Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn and General Sullivan led a march through the area, burning crops and villages belonging to the Iroquois, causing widespread famine. Another piece of the area's history is the Helmira prison where Confederate soldiers were housed in terrible conditions. Owens talks of “lives in one century commingling with, rubbing against, those in other eras.” It is something I have wondered about, too, the presence of the past, the local history, and its effect on you as you grow up.

Further context he provides is insight into the multiple fundamentalist movements that took root in the area during the 18th century, such as the Publick Universal Friend, founded by one of Judy's own ancestors, who settled in the area, calling their land New Jerusalem. More cults settled in the area in the 19th century, their waves of evangelical firestorms giving the region the name “Burnt-Over District”. He wonders about the lasting effect of these “historical and at times hysterical passions” on the region's inhabitants. I have one of these evangelical reformers/cult founders in my family tree, one I know of anyway, and shiver at the idea that some remnant of her genes inhabits my cells.

Owens brings poetry's attention to sound and compression to this work. His narrative structure is unusual but appropriate for this fractured tale. No matter how far he pulls out, he always ties his ruminations back to his mother, her ordeal and her survival. I particularly liked the chapter where he reveals local history within the story of Judy running away from home, pausing as she passes certain landmarks to give us the necessary background, but in such an organic way that I didn't realise what he was doing until I read the book a second time.

Being alert to covers, I have to give the book designer credit for the cover. This photograph shows a man and three women all laughing. One of the women, presumably Judy's mother, has her hands around the child's neck, a child whose face and body are contorted with pain. The other adults laugh at the camera. They do not seem to notice the child's agony.

The author sent me a copy of this book to review, and I'm very glad he did. This powerful book deserves a wide audience. It is one I will never forget.

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