Home » Memoir
Category Archives: Memoir
by Harriet Fish Backus
If you ever thought of memoirs as a boring genre, I encourage you to sample Harriet Fish Backus’ Tomboy Bride. It is anything but boring. “Tomboy” refers to the Tomboy Mine, located above Telluride, Colorado, and “bride” is the author Harriet who moved there in 1906 immediately after her wedding at the age of twenty with her mining engineer husband George Backus. The first half of the book describes the difficulties and adventures inherent in living in an almost impossible to reach area with only the barest necessities. Harriet was a city girl and had a big learning curve in basic survival skills in the remote, dangerous, high altitude mining camp—everything from baking at over 11,500 feet to how to wade in long skirts in the snow to an outhouse located quite a distance from the home.
The second half of the book relates a series of moves to various mines along with changes in mining fortunes. Not every mine was successful, and the country’s economic twists affected the mines as well. Their adventures took the couple to Britannia Beach, British Columbia; Elk City, Idaho; and Leadville, Colorado. They had several children and lived through World War I and the Great Depression. George’s mechanical ingenuity landed him a job in Oakland, California, which he held for 37 years, but Harriet’s fondest memories are not the ones of ease in the city, but of struggles, love, and friendship in the mountains.
Mining was a difficult and dangerous business. This was true even for college educated mining engineers who suffered from the cold, long hours and perils along with the miners. Mortality rates were high because of the distance to health care. Transportation was slow and uncomfortable along the treacherous snow packed mountain trails. Water and coal had to be carried by hand from dropping off points up slippery, snow-covered slopes to their homes by the residents. The only fruits and vegetables available were canned and brought up monthly on burros. Because of the isolation, residents tended to work as a community. As long as Harriet and George were together, they were happy despite, and sometimes perhaps because of, their shared hardships.
Category: Memoir, History
Notes: 1. I recommend the 50th anniversary edition of Tomboy Bride because it includes many photographs that bring the story to life.
2. There is a timeline at the end of the book.
3. This is a great book for a book club to read as it is ripe with topics for discussion. Tomboy Bride includes thought provoking questions at the end of the book which our book club found quite helpful.
Publication: 2019—West Margin Press
On reaching his destination the rider tied the reins to the pommel of the saddle and turned the horse loose. Regardless of the distance, knowing the trails far better than most riders, the horse quietly and surely returned to the nearest stable, at the Tomboy or in Telluride.
Crash! What sounded like pounds of glass breaking into bits was only an old cigar box filled with nails that had fallen from a shelf. Even the rats laid low that night, at least we did not hear them. My chattering teeth kept time to the rattling of the old stovepipe fastened by wires to the rafters. The denim “carpet” rose and fell like ocean billows and wind crackled the newspaper padding.
…at the end of a month we both felt inwardly the call of the wild. Somehow, after the serenity of our mountains, the city seemed tawdry and confusing.
I’ll Be Seeing You
by Elizabeth Berg
Aging. A theme as old as the passing of time. Elizabeth Berg addresses it in her memoir I’ll Be Seeing You. She describes the challenges of growing old while trying to help her aging parents as they grow even older. It’s tough. We all know that. And it’s different for everyone. Rather than unhelpful generalizations, Berg shares her very personal story—mostly stressful, often frustrating, and sometimes funny.
Berg’s parents, in their late 80’s, are faced with the need to downsize and move to accommodations that are safer and provide opportunities for a continued happy life, but with more constraints. Her father has Alzheimer’s, and her mother is angry and feels suffocated. Berg and her siblings try to help, to make the transition as easy as possible. In the almost year-long transition process she “learned a lot about them, and just as much about myself.”
Berg is an excellent writer. She explores her own aging, her relationship with her parents, and the couple’s love for each other with sensitivity and honesty. Berg turns a tale of aging, decline, and loss into a page turner that explores confronting the inevitable hurdles in life rather than being victimized by them. Although the most visible theme is aging, love permeates the tale with the kind of affection and devotion that lasts a lifetime.
I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Random House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Publication: October 27, 2020—Random House
A kind of wild optimism that was in all of us that has eroded as it must with the tired realities of life, with the anvil of aging that has fallen on our parents and will fall on us, too, should we live that long.
I am, as is easy to see, full of hope. But I have to remember something I always forget: you can’t tell anyone else how to experience something. People live behind their own eyes. I’m not the one with the broken arm.
Yes, life is a minefield at any age. Sometimes we feel pretty certain that we know what’s coming. But really, we never do. We just walk on. We have to. If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. And hope for a fair balance.
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
There are a variety of tales and anecdotes about life during the Great Depression, yet many who survived don’t want to talk about it. The experiences of those in the cities were quite different from those living in the country. Regardless of location, however, all but the very wealthy suffered and their lives and perspectives were formed or altered by their experiences.
In Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish shares what life was like for herself and her extended family. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish between the normal trials of endless farm work and the efforts needed to reuse and repurpose items because of deprivation of money and resources. “Thrown away” was a foreign concept during this time and thrift was the champion of the day. Kalish shares the many saving and “make-do” tricks that were common during the Depression and some that were uncommon. Many of those have fallen out of use, but are still handy to know and good examples of the resourcefulness of our predecessors.
Kalish lays her memories out forthrightly, not concealing or varnishing the stories. Many are humorous and several are gasp-worth. Children worked alongside adults learning by example and experience. Farm life required the whole family to pitch in. Chores were divided by age and gender, but not strictly. For example, Monday Wash Day was a very physical, all-day task for which preparations began on Sunday night. Children and adults wore the same set of clothes all week, and everyone participated in wash day. The need for everyone to work together is apparent in the book over and over again.
Kalish addresses the many aspects of life at that time as seen through the eyes of a child who was an active participant. She has an incredible memory for detail right down to how to catch, kill, and prepare a snapping turtle for consumption. She also discusses the social aspects of community inside and outside the family unit. Her life was unique in that she lived in town during the winter and on a farm during the growing season because of her family situation. Her life was very different in each place, but the expectations of a good work ethic and attitude never changed.
The author viewed the hardships of her childhood as instrumental in her many achievements later in life. From success as a “hired girl” to working her way through college to her happy marriage and career as a professor, Kalish gives credit to her family, especially her mother: “Mama’s ability to meet challenges head-on and with a positive attitude created in us kids a sense of confidence that there was a way to solve every problem—just find it.” Although her life was hard, it was not unhappy and she prizes the memories of her past. I enjoyed her writing style, learned from the information she shared, and relived some of my past as I have memories of my Depression-era parents handing down wise sayings and thrifty values. Well done, Mildred Armstrong Kalish!
Publication: May 29, 2007—Random House (Bantam)
Mama, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Ernest, Grandma, and Grandpa had a real gift for integrating us children into farm life. Working alongside us, they taught us how to perform the chores and execute the obligations that make a family and a farm work.
An Old Maid (that’s what we called unmarried women in those days) was asked why she didn’t try to find a husband. Her reply was, “I have a dog that growls, a chimney that smokes, a parrot that swears, and a cat that stays out all night. Why do I need a husband?”
After our chores and household duties were done we were given “permission” to read. In other words, our elders positioned reading as a privilege—a much sought-after prize, granted only to those goodhardworkers who earned it. How clever of them.
She kept all of her needles stuck into a red felt pincushion which she had owned since just before God.
A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
The Appalachian Trail, a little over 2,000 miles of challenging terrain, is a test that hikers of all ages, genders, and experience levels attack in various ways. There are parking lot visitors; they drive in, look around a bit and perhaps picnic, but do not actually hike the trail. Section hikers traverse parts of the trail at various times with a few completing the whole trail over the course of a lifetime. Then there are a few hardy souls who are full thru-hikers; they keep at it from south to north until they complete the trail.
As you might imagine, hiking the Appalachian Trail is an endeavor that requires a lot of planning and the purchase of expensive equipment to get the lightest weight gear possible. Carrying a forty pound backpack all day over rough terrain with formidable ascents and descents is a difficult task indeed. Author Bill Bryson who has written a number of travel books relates in A Walk in the Woods his experiences on the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, a former school chum he had traveled around Europe with twenty-years prior. Much of the book describes the harsh realities of the hike and the delightful relief of their occasional forays into civilization to replenish supplies and sleep in a real bed. Some of the book relates their changing relationship as they confront the trials of the trail together as well as anecdotes about the interesting people they meet along the way.
Bryson’s writing style is comfortable. The descriptions are detailed without being overblown, and there is just enough history of the trail to give the reader an understanding of why it is the way it is. Often humorous, it provides an interesting read taking the reader into a once in a lifetime experience on the Appalachian Trail.
Notes: Some profanity
Publication: December 26, 2006 (first published May 5, 1998)—Anchor Books
But even men far tougher and more attuned to the wilderness than Thoreau were sobered by its strange and palpable menace. Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters, described corners of the southern Appalachians as “so wild and horrid that it is impossible to behold them without terror.” When Daniel Boone is uneasy, you know it’s time to watch your step.
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.
And all the time, as we crept along on this absurdly narrow, dangerous perch, we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our packs. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.
by Joy Harjo
When the Poet Laureate of the United States writes a memoir, you can expect it to deviate from the standard timeline format, and Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave is anything but formulaic. She divides her book into four parts according to compass directions. As a Creek Indian, directions, nature, art, music, and family provide her orientation to life. Each section begins with poetic prose.
“East is the direction of beginnings.” She begins her tale this way and it is a little difficult to settle into the story as she shares her views from the eyes of a child filled with a mix of fear and adoration.
“North is the direction where the difficult teachers live.” In the second section, Harjo shares the realities of a brutal and abusive childhood in a time and culture that viewed spousal and child abuse and drunkenness as family problems to be either dealt with or endured within the family. After I read the book, I learned later through a webinar that this section was a very difficult one for Harjo to write. In fact, she got stuck for years on this part of her story with the book taking fourteen years to complete. There is redemption in her story, however, as education offers Harjo, as a teenager, a way out of her circumstances.
“West is the direction of endings.” In this section, Harjo describes her young adulthood as she becomes a teenage mother and finds herself trying to live in poverty, at odds with her mother-in-law, and responsible for a stepchild. What happened to her hopes and dreams for a creative life?
“South is the direction of release.” Probably the most poetic and visionary of the sections, “South” continues Harjo’s fight to survive but also interprets her dreams and visions as short stories and poems. She creates an interesting mix of fiction and nonfiction in her writing featuring monsters, eagles, demons, and ancestors.
Harjo describes her panic attacks as monsters. She labels the instincts that help guide her decision making as the “knowing.” She refers to her ancestors, those who have passed, as guardians in her life, and she speaks to them through her poetry. This memoir is a mix of what really occurred, her perceptions of those events, and flights of fantasy taken from her dream world; she melds poetry and prose in mind bending impressions.
Crazy Brave personalizes for me the individual and tribal struggles of Native Americans. Although the abuse tied to alcoholism is difficult to read about, it is an important part of Harjo’s experiences and of understanding the Native culture that helped shape her voice as an author and artist.
Notes: Harjo is currently writing another memoir to continue her story where Crazy Brave left off.
Publication: July 9, 2012—W.W. Norton & Co.
Because music is a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can help raise a people up or call them to gather for war.
Though I was blurred with fear, I could still hear and feel the knowing. The knowing was my rudder, a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destructive, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us.
It was in the fires of creativity at the Institute of American Indian Arts that my spirit found a place to heal. I thrived with others who carried family and personal stories similar to my own. I belonged. Mine was no longer a solitary journey.
In the Land of Blue Burqas
by Kate McCord
What would it be like to live in a country where the language, religion, and culture are extremely different from your own, a country like Afghanistan? Kate McCord raised support from friends and embarked on what was destined to be a five year adventure as a project manager, arranging for and supervising programs to help the local people. In the process, she found ways to interact within the cultural norms which, if violated, could result in penalties including physical abuse, expulsion, or execution.
Although she could not openly evangelize, she spent much time there having tea with women, and sometimes men, sharing stories to illustrate the teachings of the Honorable Jesus who is regarded as a prophet in Islam. Those stories included parables Jesus himself shared with His followers. In recounting tales they could relate to and by the way she lived her life, Kate was able to show her Muslim neighbors and friends a God who loves them, unlike Allah, who is never associated with love. Allah’s followers obey him according to the interpretations of the local mullah in a most legalistic fashion.
Kate spent time learning the language and culture. Led by the Holy Spirit, she developed culturally sensitive ways to share difficult concepts like the Trinity. She lived as an Afghan woman, learning clothing requirements and social rules such as where to sit on a bus and when to make eye contact. Clearly a foreigner with her own religion, she adapted their customs to her own in a way that respected both traditions. Kate faced challenges in deciding whom to help in the most culturally appropriate way and looked to the locals to ascertain their attitudes toward individuals seeking aid. Knowing she could not revolutionize a society in which none of her many female friends said their husband had never beaten them, she nevertheless planted seeds of generosity, good attitudes, and kindness which helped the women in their relationships as well as showed them a side of the Honorable Jesus that they did not know thus drawing them to Him.
In the Land of Blue Burqas is the canvas on which Kate McCord paints a remarkably positive picture of Afghanistan and its citizens in spite of their dislike of most foreigners and regardless of the many brutal aspects of their culture. I came away with a clearer understanding of why the country vehemently resists change and is so hostile to non-Muslims. I also emerge from this enlightening book grateful that I live in a country where I am free to choose to worship a loving God.
Category: Evangelism, Christian Missions
Notes: I had a difficult time choosing the memorable lines I wanted to share. Sound bites and even longer quotes don’t do this story justice. I urge you to read the book to get a more complete understanding. It is a fascinating read. It also stimulates me to want to read about how Islam plays out in other countries.
Publication: May 1, 2012—Moody Publishing
Still, my greatest fear in the country has always been that I would be kidnapped and sold to some warlord as a fourth or fifth wife, relegated to household and sexual slavery behind a twelve-foot, mud-brick wall and locked gate. Even the mildest stories of Afghan women’s lives haunt me.
Our very presence challenges the power of the mullahs and the worldview of our neighbors. It’s one thing to hate and reject the voiceless, faceless masses of pig-eating, alcohol-drinking sons of Satan from the other side of the world—mythic caricatures interpreted by the mullahs through history and religion.
But we Christian foreigners are flesh and blood with eyes and voices, laughter and tears, stories and faith. When Afghans meet us, see our lives, hear our stories, and recognize our humanness, conflicting worldviews collide. The safe box of well-defined ideological fortress-orthodoxy trembles, walls collapse, and doors open.
What They Meant for Evil: How a Lost Girl of Sudan Found Healing, Peace, and Purpose in the Midst of Suffering
What They Meant for Evil: How a Lost Girl of Sudan Found Healing, Peace, and Purpose in the Midst of Suffering
by Rebecca Deng with Ginger Kolbaba
We hear reports on the news of massacres of innocents in various countries around the globe and stories of displaced men, women, and children who become refugees and try to survive in crowded refugee camps. Those stories are usually sound bites, quickly discarded for the next big story. Rebecca Deng, a survivor of the horrific Bor Massacre of 1991 in Sudan, gives us the perspective of a six year old girl in What They Meant for Evil. We see her confusion as she flees with family walking through the wilds. She becomes an orphan as those she loves most are killed and grows up in a refugee camp. The UN provides a small amount of maize, without seasoning, to sustain the population. The bathroom is an open area on the other side of a dry riverbed with nothing to provide privacy. I had always imagined a refugee camp as a temporary facility, but Rebecca lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya for eight years before she benefited from a special program that relocated her to the U.S. and placed her with an adoptive family. Many of her Sudanese relatives remained in the camp long after that.
In the latter part of the book, we learn of Rebecca’s life as an adult and her spiritual growth as she comes to terms with her identity and the trauma of her past. She uses her education, her experiences, and her faith in God to help other refugees recover as she sees God’s plan unfold to bring good out of what others intended for evil.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to Faith Words for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Christian, Memoir, Nonfiction
Publication: September 8, 2020—Faith Words
That was what the war did to the tens of thousands of innocent children who lost everything—it took their childhood, their innocence, their families, their homes, even their lives.
More crowds meant less food for everybody. And less food meant more violence. Crime seemed to be everywhere. People began bullying other people, stealing their food, and beating and raping them. These things were unheard of for my people before coming here. My language doesn’t even have a word for rape.
…I had learned that God doesn’t always keep us from experiencing trauma, but his unseen presence is with us, strengthening us.
But there’s another aspect of forgiveness that we too often forget or neglect, and that is forgiving ourselves. If we want true forgiveness, we must forgive ourselves for the ways in which we have failed ourselves. We do more damage to ourselves when we believe the lies others have said about us and the lies the enemy whispers into our minds—the lies that tell us we are no good, we are worthless, we can never experience true freedom or true love.
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
by Jean Guerrero
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir attracted my attention because I live part of each year in Mexico and part in New Mexico, U.S.A. After five years of cross-border experiences, I have such mixed feelings because I love the U.S. with its fairly balanced mixture of freedom and order, but I also have enjoyed the kindness and diverse cultures of the Mexican people.
Crux, however, addresses cross-border experiences on a whole different level. The author Jean Guerrero is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Mexican father. Guerrero survives a dysfunctional childhood to become a journalist. This book is an effort to understand herself through an attempt to understand her father, a brilliant man who at various times is addicted to drugs, and alcohol, believes the C.I.A. is performing experiments on him, and is schizophrenic according to her mother, a medical doctor.
Guerrero longs for her father’s affection. She received it when she was very little, but most of her memories are of an unpredictable and often hateful man who occasionally dropped in and out of her life. Guerrero tries to win her mother’s affection and approval through scholastic achievement. In the process of becoming an adult, she is always introspective but she experiments in dangerous arenas—drugs at raves, trips to dangerous areas of Mexico, bad boys and sexual exploration, and the occult. The occult is tied in with her heritage as she had a great-great grandmother in Mexico who was a healer and diviner and other Mexican relatives who were involved in similar activities.
Crux contains a lot of family stories: Guerrero’s own memories, interviews with her father and his mother, and trips to Mexico to discover the truth of her roots. It also includes some of her philosophical thinking at various times in her life as well as information from her neurological studies in college. She minored in neurology as a part of her efforts to understand her father’s schizophrenia and her genetic predilection to become schizophrenic herself.
As a cross-border tale, Crux is sprinkled with Spanish, some of it translated, some not. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I appreciated the authenticity added to Crux by including Spanish. I do wonder, however, if understanding the book would be affected by a reader’s not being able to translate as they read. One could, of course, use an online Spanish dictionary to help, but that would definitely interrupt the flow.
Crux is a very personal memoir exploring the raw feelings of the author. The point of view changes in the latter part of the book as Guerrero addresses her father. There is also a maturity and cohesion in that part of the book not present in the first. Perhaps that is appropriate as she was initially relating experiences as remembered from a child’s point of view. Readers who enjoy history will receive historical background to provide context; it is interesting and succinct. All in all, Crux is a good read. There are very few heart-warming moments, but that was her life.
I would like to extend my thanks to netgalley.com and to One World (Random House) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Notes: There are some sexually explicit portions and offensive language in Crux. The treatment of women is particularly disturbing.
Publication: July 17, 2018—One World (Random House)
Life was not turning out as we had hoped. Creativity was a crime. Innocent creatures were mortal. Fathers left their daughters and broke their mother’s heart.
I had grown accustomed to the idea of my father as dead. If he was dead, he wasn’t willfully ignoring us. This belief had become a sinister source of comfort.
He persisted without pausing for protest, the same anger he had directed at me when he was driving me to my riding lessons as a teenager. I stared at the table, steeling myself. The numbness came naturally—a habit of my adolescence.