One of the pleasures of reviewing books is the variety of stories that land on my desk. (It’s not the pay, since there is none.) Like these three memoirs by three women with very different and powerful voices:
Just Beyond Harmony, by Gaydell Collier, High Plains Press: Collier was a young mother with four kids in 1963 when she and her husband Roy sold their farm in Vermont to follow their dreams back to Wyoming. Collier, native to the comfortable suburbs of Long Island, and her husband, who grew up in similarly suburban Chicago, had met at the University of Wyoming and shared a love of the state’s windswept open spaces and “the Western mystique.”
Thus, the Collier family–plus two cats piled into a 1929 Ford Model A and 1932 Chevy roadster and headed West. (Roy, writes Collier without irony, “thought America had been in her prime forty years earlier in the 1920s… if he was forced to drive a vehicle, it had to be at least a quarter-century old.”) Roy found a job on a ranch in a rural community called Harmony, west of Laramie.
The family settled into a tenant house on the ranch until Roy came home one afternoon announcing he had found their “new house,” which turned out to be an abandoned cabin with no running water, a privy out back, heated by a wood cookstove, and tucked picturesquely into the cottonwood trees on the Big Laramie River.
Just Beyond Harmony chronicles their life in that not-exactly-idyllic cabin. It reminds us that we don’t need money and stuff; we can thrive on plenty of love and imagination. It’s a coming-of-age-tale tracing Collier’s blossoming as a mother, writer with dreams of her own… Perhaps most of all, this memoir is a testament to one woman’s unflappable sense of humor, wry wisdom, and steady belief that life will come out not just all right, but wonderfully, improbably well. Somehow. And in Collier’s hands, it does. (Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews, plus an interview with Collier.)
The Land: Our Gift and Wild Hope, by Rae Marie Taylor, Bright Shores Press: Poet and artist Taylor opens The Land in the Cold War era of her Colorado childhood:
On that historic night in 1956 [when Russia invaded Hungary], I learned that my dad believed the United States was a democracy. As such, … we respected differences because our country was founded on an ideal called e plurbis unum, “one from many,” one country from many lands, he thought, one people from many peoples. This saying was inscribed along with the powerful eagle borrowed from the Mohawk. Reassured, I believed.
That belief, and Taylor’s bone-deep attachment to the West’s open spaces, especially the high-desert country of northern New Mexico, inspired this book, a personal look at the roots of environmental and cultural issues bedeviling the region. The narrative roughly follows Taylor’s journeys between Quebec, where she has had a teaching job, and her more hardscrabble but spiritually and physically renewing sojourns in New Mexico. Taylor has no hesitation about tackling difficult issues of economic and environmental justice, whether the impact of wealthy people moving into traditional communities, the loss of a beloved summer cabin within a national park when its lease was no longer renewed, or sustainable grazing systems in the desert.
This passionate and well-researched memoir shines where Taylor draws on her own personal experience to illustrate the issues. It’s less compelling when she slips into lecture mode, telling instead of showing. Still, Taylor’s voice is strong, and where she is intimately involved with the story, compelling.
In The Present Giver, singer-songwriter Bar Scott illuminates the love she learned from her young son.
The Present Giver, a memoir, by Bar Scott, ALM Books: “I’ve asked myself over and over again why I should write this book,” Scott writes at the beginning of The Present Giver, “and the answer is always the same: all great love stories should be told and this is the best one I know.”
Having asked the most important question a memoir-writer must wrestle with (“Why bother?”), Scott answers it by giving herself a huge assignment to accomplish in this slim book: entice readers into the love story, and show them its greatness in a way so authentic they won’t question why the story needed to be written. No pressure there.
As if that wasn’t sufficiently challenging, she has already revealed the end of the story:
As it turned out, Forrest died on a Sunday …. It was February 9th, 2002 at 2:13 in the afternoon. He was three-and-a-half years old. If this were a novel, I would be reluctant to disclose that the central character dies in the end. But this is not a novel, and Forrest’s death was not the end.
Perhaps not, but Scott is Forrest’s mother. Which means, as the author of the memoir she assumes the additional challenge of writing a love story about her own child’s life while living with his death.
I won’t be giving away the end of the story by saying she is successful on all counts. The Present Giver is a heart-wrenching and heart-opening story. It helps that it’s told by an award-winning songwriter who has a good deal of practice in distilling the essence of any story into lyrics. It also helps that the love Scott discovers in the story is in part her own unquenchable love for life, even after her child’s life is taken. That is Forrest’s gift, hence the title. (Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)
Three women, three voices, three memoirs that illustrate why I spend some of my precious free time reviewing books: to nurture and celebrate the gifts good stories can give us, of insight and compassion.