A reflection that goes under the surface, not over the top

Caldwell's inclusive, honest book is a pleasant departure from memoir trends

Review Memoir

February 12, 2006|By CHARLES MATTHEWS | CHARLES MATTHEWS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Strong West Wind: a Memoir

Gail Caldwell

Random House / 228 pages / $24.95

This may not be the best time to publish a memoir, what with all the fuss over the, um, exaggerations uncovered in James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. But Gail Caldwell's affecting A Strong West Wind is not that kind of memoir. It's more of a meditation on the past, a story of growing up and breaking free - and then of going back to reflect on what was gained and what was lost.

Memoirs have been hot ever since Angela's Ashes made retired schoolteacher Frank McCourt a wealthy man with his frequently harrowing tales of growing up poor in Brooklyn and Ireland. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers dazzled readers with narrative tricks and gimmicks as he recalled trying to raise his kid brother after their parents died. Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors told of growing up in the bizarre household of the psychiatrist he was handed over to by his psychotic mother.

The memoir became a "can-you-top-this?" genre dominated by stories of childhood deprivation or abuse, dysfunctional families, eccentric lives, and descents into madness or criminality. Which inevitably led to Frey's overcooked account of his recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, and to his performance in the center ring of the Oprah circus.

But there's another, quieter kind of memoir, predicated on the writer's assertions not of uniqueness but of universality. Caldwell's book is one of those, as she indicates in her first sentence: "How do we become who we are?" That's a more inclusive question than the one that lies behind it: How did I, born in a town on the Texas Panhandle, turn into this 54-year-old woman who won the Pulitzer Prize as the book critic for The Boston Globe? Caldwell shies away from such naked egotism. She wants the reader to recognize a fellowship of experience.

Her book divides neatly into two halves. The first is about the baby boomer daughter of "greatest generation" parents who did the best they could for her in the bleak and boring milieu of Amarillo, Texas. Her father taught her to hunt and shoot and play poker. When one of Caldwell's legs was weakened by the polio she contracted as an infant, her mother supervised the strengthening exercises. Both parents were patient when their once shy and bookish daughter "skidded on the black ice of adolescence," as she puts it. They remained patient when she was busted for pot in college, and when her restlessness - fueled by the cultural turmoil of the 1960s - led her to drop out for a "five-year sabbatical on the highways and back roads of America."

Her participation in protests against the Vietnam War especially troubled her father, a World War II veteran, whose view of the war was not far from the one prevailing in Amarillo: that to be against it was "not just heretical but downright feral." In short, Caldwell "was a smart, dreamy, estranged young woman who knew enough to hate a war halfway across the globe but not enough to pick a major."

Eventually she got it together and, with a strong west wind at her back, headed east for a successful career as a newspaper writer. But the second half of the book is not about that; it's about her efforts at reconciliation, at understanding the family that put up with her all those years.

"My father gave me great gifts - courage and determination and card skills and the rest - and also burdens: anger, stubbornness, an inability to know when to quit." Comparing her mother to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsay, Caldwell describes her as "the oak tree in the corner of the canvas, fixed and essential." Her family portrait, which includes not only her parents but also the families they came from and were shaped by, is shrewd and unsentimental but also deeply moving. And it never sounds strained through guilt or remorse or any of those emotions that tend to color family memories.

As a critic, Caldwell deserved the Pulitzer not only for the judiciousness of her insights but also for her determined efforts to write with freshness and grace and to avoid the cliches of the reviewing trade. If she has a fault, it's that her prose can be so clever that it gets in between us and the books she's talking about - it can sound smart for smart's sake. There's a bit of that in her memoir, too. An example: "That is one of love's great laws: The father instructs, the child ingests, until memory itself becomes the long way home." I like the way that sounds, but I can't quite get at what it means.

But this is a memoir to be grateful for. It's crafted without postmodern tricks and without fakery: There are no scenes where it's evident that the writer's imagination is supplying details and dialogue that memory alone could hardly access after so many years. A Strong West Wind is brave, generous, eloquent, touching and - I feel quite sure of this - true.

Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.

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