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Episode 307

Family Memoirs

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Posted by Mary Ann

Gregory Martin has used his family history as fuel for his writing, and not just in “Stories for Boys.”

His 2000 book “Mountain City” was about the VERY small Nevada town where his grandparents lived, a place he visited every summer. At the start of the book the population is 33; at the end, it’s 31. Mountain City is something of a ghost town; it’s one of those places that experienced a brief boom in mining, then lost its economic reason for being. But people stay there because…it’s home. Most of the people are elderly, but these descendants of Basque sheepherders and Cornish tin miners are a tough bunch. They battle the cold and the unforgiving elements, and they form a kind of community. Martin brings them to life, and shows a passion for family that surely helped carry him through the story he tells in “Stories for Boys.”

I thought about that phrase, “a passion for family,” as I pondered what other books to recommend that are “like” “Stories for Boys.” Most family memoirs invoke some kind of loss, either of an actual person or of the person the author thought they knew. Gregory Martin discovered that his father was not the person he thought he knew, and he had to learn to live with and love a new and different version of that person.

Another book that powerfully evokes family tensions and loss is “Live Through This : A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love“ by Debra Gwartney.

Gwartney is a very talented writer who also teaches writing at the University of Oregon. My sons were teenagers when I read this book, and I simply could not put it down – it’s one of those “There But For the Grace of God” books.

Every parent of a teenager knows that getting them to stay on the straight path involves a lot of tension, negotiation and love. This is the story of a woman whose daughters basically went off the rails. Gwartney married young, had four daughters and a decade later, decided that she had to get out, and that decision to divorce generated family upheaval. Then, two of her daughters decided to run away.

It was striking to me how little help she had in getting them back – if a teenager decides to leave, there’s only so much the authorities can or will do.

Gwartney does an amazing job of chronicling her rage, grief and her search for her daughters. “Amanda and Stephanie out there somewhere,” Gwartney writes, “asking for money as strangers passed by, eating food pilfered from garbage cans or gathered up at shelters. The drugs whistling through their bodies. Where did they go to pee? Where did they find toilet paper or soap or clean underwear or socks without holes?”

As with “Stories for Boys,” I was left wondering whether I could have written about a subject so close to my own heart and family, but as with “Stories for Boys,” I expect that people who have been through a similar experience will get insight and comfort from it. Any parent will get insight – my kids have never run, but I felt such empathy for this well-meaning mother’s predicament. It palpably demonstrates to what lengths a parent will go to help and protect their child, even when the child doesn’t want the help.

Another family memoir that will grab your heart and make you think is “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” by Terry Tempest Williams.

This is an unusual book that combines a number of threads. Williams’ mother, to whom she was very attached, died of cancer at age 53. The family is located in Utah, and the book combines Williams’ concerns about her family, concern about the natural habitat of the Great Salk Lake, which is being altered by developers, and concerns that her mother died of cancer because she was exposed to atomic radiation testing as a child. Six aunts, a grandmother, the author’s mother, and countless neighbors in the Mormon community in which Williams was raised were all cancer victims, and were all residents of an area the federal government declared “virtually uninhabited” and hence okay to use for nuclear testing. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking book.

Finally, one of the most beautiful books I have ever read is “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen is a great writer who has written all kinds of books, from nonfiction to novels. This book is about his five-week trek in the Himalayas with wildlife biologist George Schaller. It’s a transcendent account of his walk across the top of the world, as well as a meditation on the loss of his wife, who he lost years earlier to cancer and who was the only person he ever felt truly “one” with. Matthiesen, a Buddhist, writes about the natural world with such feeling, and that, combined with his ruminations on love and the nature of loss make for an exceedingly powerful book. A friend of mine, an avid outdoorsman and hiker who lost his fiancé when he was in his early 20s – she died of leukemia – drew a lot of comfort from this book. A New York Times Review called this a “radiant, fragile, flickering book.” All those things.

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