Bonus Post: 2 Blockbuster Memoirs

Educated     Tara Westover     (2018)

Heartland     Sarah Smarsh     (2018)

These two memoirs have many similarities: a woman grows up in an impoverished rural area of the United States, with limited or fragmented education, then eventually escapes that environment to make a successful life. This summary doesn’t reveal the stark differences between Tara Westover’s Educated and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland. Westover was raised in Idaho by radical Mormon survivalist parents who didn’t allow her to attend school or receive medical treatment. Smarsh grew up in Kansas, on farms and in small towns, with a nominally Catholic extended family that moved frequently, pulling her in and out of schools. I found both memoirs riveting.

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In Educated, Westover explains that she was born in September 1986, though no one is sure which day because she was born at home and did not have her birth recorded. She received virtually no education before the age of seventeen, not even nominal homeschooling, though she did learn how to read from the few religious books in the house. She clearly cherished the natural beauty that surrounded her in childhood: “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of domination. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.” (27)

Her father—an anti-government, conspiracy-theory fundamentalist—was particularly abusive in his insistence that his children start working in his scrap yard at a young age, performing highly dangerous tasks without any safety precautions. Many physical injuries resulted, though Westover doesn’t assign blame for these injuries. One brother of Westover’s also tormented her physically, while her parents turned a blind eye.

Westover’s restraint in holding her family accountable is truly amazing. She goes so far as to provide footnotes, giving particulars of possible alternate descriptions of brutal scenes that she describes from her memories. Perhaps because the first sections of the memoir are so disturbing, the later sections (in which Westover goes to Brigham Young University and eventually to Cambridge University for a PhD) seem much less vivid, almost flat. Another lack I felt in Educated was explanation of the specific role of the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church in her family. She’s very respectful of her parents’ beliefs, but readers don’t get too many examples of how their extreme views contrast with more mainstream Mormon beliefs. For example, most Mormons are assigned to a bishop, a lay person they can go to for counseling and other assistance. Where was this structure in the lives of the Westover family? Westover does write, “As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same . . . I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known.” (159)

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While Westover does not preach about the political and religious views that shaped her childhood, Smarsh observes no such restrictions. The subtitle for Heartland summarizes its message: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. A few quotations illustrate the lessons that Smarsh takes from her peripatetic upbringing: 

  • “For the women in my family and their daughters, the constant moving was about staying safe from violent men and finding new ways to pay the bills. Leaving sad places behind, they seized on the promise of new ones. But they knew well enough that tomorrow’s promise would end up yesterday’s sadness.” (183)

  • “In 1979, Reagan had built his first presidential campaign around shaming poor, unwed teenage girls the same year that my poor, unwed teenage mother became pregnant with me. Maybe that’s why she would be damned if she’d go on welfare even when she qualified those years after her and my dad’s divorce. Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” (132)

  • “In a country where personal value is supposed to create wealth, it is easy for a poor person to feel himself a bad one. Many of the people who raised me believed themselves to be bad. I know because they often treated me like I was bad. I greatest fortune of my life is that I knew they were wrong.” (282)

Like Westover, Smarsh was able to break away from rural poverty and go to college, which launched her on a career. In Heartland, she takes the unusual approach of addressing her entire memoir to an imaginary daughter named August. (Smarsh has no children.) The nonexistent August comes into the story at odd junctures, addressed as “you.” I found this technique jarring and ineffective. In addition, Smarsh’s frequent chronological leaps between decades, sometimes decades before her birth, and her references to a large cast of family members confused me. 

Why have both these books soared to the top of the charts, with Educated appearing on many lists of “best books of 2018”? I’m guessing that, despite some narrative flaws in both of the memoirs, readers are fascinated by the descriptions of poverty. (Face it, people currently living in poverty are not likely to be reading these memoirs.) The scenes of violence and child neglect in both books may have caused readers to keep turning the pages to see what horrors came next. There’s also the lure of the “up by your own bootstraps” myth that persists in American culture, overlooking the role of helpful teachers, for example, or of sheer chance in upward social mobility. I do not in any way want to discredit the extraordinary educational and professional achievements of Westover and Smarsh. Through incredible determination and hard work, they freed themselves from the tough situations in which they were raised. Both also avoided early motherhood, which traps many women in a lifetime of hardship.

My concern is that the reading public may draw the conclusion that, since Westover and Smarsh could rise from poverty, anyone can. That was an implicit conclusion of JD Vance in his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which I’ve also reviewed. Vance, who grew up poor in Appalachia and got himself through Yale Law School, blamed the explosive tempers and laziness of his fellow hillbillies for their economic status. Smarsh’s memoir offers more nuanced explanations, plus expositions about income inequality in the United States. Poverty is not as significant a theme in Educated, since Westover’s Idaho family eventually found financial success in selling homemade alternative medicines. Instead Westover offers a warning about the dangers of political and social paranoia, including millennialism.

Should you read these memoirs? Yes. They are important pieces for anyone seeking to understand the social and cultural milieu of the United States in these early decades of the twenty-first century.  

Nonfiction & Fiction by Russo

Elsewhere: A Memoir     Richard Russo     (2012)

That Old Cape Magic     Richard Russo     (2009)

The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writers, Writing and Life     Richard Russo     (2018)

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Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and most of his other novels are set in decaying industrial towns peopled by rough-and-tumble strugglers. It’s no secret that in his fiction Russo drew on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, which by the 1960s was severely polluted, from the byproducts of the manufacture of leather gloves, and poverty stricken, since the glove industry had moved to India and China.

When I ran across this memoir by Russo, I thought he might reveal how his novels are linked to his own biography. Elsewhere does provide some clues for avid Russo readers, but it’s primarily the story of Russo’s relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own after her divorce from his father when Richard was a small child. Jean Russo was smart, hardworking, attractive, sexy, fashionable, controlling, manipulative, selfish, explosive, confused, and unhappy most of the time. Richard loved her fiercely and tried for decades to relieve her sadnesses. Only after her death, in her mid-eighties, did he realize that she likely had a serious mental health condition that was never diagnosed or treated.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, as memoir can be, but Elsewhere is a touching portrait of a tormented woman. I kept looking back at the photos of Russo and his mother on the cover of the book, feeling as if I knew these two people personally.

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For a glimpse into how Russo’s mother may have influenced his fiction, try That Old Cape Magic, a 2009 novel that’s one of his gentlest narratives—a kind of meditation on relationships (successful, failed, failing, blissful, doomed, redeemable). Griffin, the middle-aged protagonist, attends two weddings, a year apart. The first wedding takes place on Cape Cod, and it stirs up in his memory the childhood vacations that he spent there with his parents, who were escaping their academic jobs in the hated Midwest. Griffin is trying to come to terms with his parents’ unhappy marriage, especially since he’s carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, and since his own marriage is not so solid. Griffin’s mother, long divorced from his late father, phones him constantly in this story, and her voice sounds similar, in tone and level of sarcasm, to the voice that author Russo gives to his own mother in his memoir. 

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For more details on Russo’s writing process, pick up his 2018 book, The Destiny Thief, a collection of nine essays, some of which have been previously published. I’d recommend skipping the essay on The Pickwick Papers unless you’re a serious fan of Charles Dickens. But the essay “Getting Good” has valuable advice for aspiring writers, particularly on the controversial issue of digital versus print publication. The piece titled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” is a brilliant analysis of the function of narrative voice in fiction, with examples from Russo’s work and from the writing of others, based on his years of teaching in writing programs across the country and around the world.

In another vein, “Imagining Jenny” is an emotional account of how a writer friend of Russo’s underwent gender reassignment surgery. All in all, this collection is pure Russo—sardonic, funny, and smart.

A Confused Hillbilly

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis     JD Vance     (2016)

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JD Vance’s social analysis of “hillbilly culture,” using the lens of his own life story, has been widely credited with explaining why white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. Vance’s book also topped several bestseller lists in 2016, and it’s been praised by political commentators on both the right and the left. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I checked Hillbilly Elegy out from my local library.

Hillbilly Elegy is meant to be both a memoir and a cultural commentary. The memoir component  is an “up by the bootstraps” tale of a boy overcoming incredible odds to escape from the dying Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, in the early years of the current century. Vance is raised primarily by his maternal grandparents—“Mamaw” and “Papaw” in hillbilly parlance—since his mother is a substance abuser who cycles through five husbands and innumerable short-term boyfriends. The foul-mouthed but loving Mamaw is a strong influence on the young JD; she emphasizes the importance of education and shields him from many of his mother’s violent episodes. Vance graduates from high school, joins the Marines, serves in the Iraq war, gets through college at Ohio State in record time, goes on to Yale Law School, meets a brilliant and kindly woman who becomes his wife, and ends up working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Despite the jerky narrative style and the many clichés in the memoir portions of this book, I was drawn to some parts of the story. Vance’s experience in the Marines, for example, is a turning point in his life: “It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family.” (175) He cites specific incidents that taught him how to control his temper and interact peaceably with others.

Periodically Vance inserts into his memoir paragraphs of polemic against hillbillies, in the form of disconnected soapbox orations about working-class white people in Appalachia, the South, and the Rust Belt, whose culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Throughout the book, Vance presents the tendency to explosive interpersonal reactions as one reason for the low economic status of people of his background. He asks plaintively, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” (231)

Vance freely admits that he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, yet he presents contradictory arguments. He rails against lazy hillbillies who are “living off of government largesse” (139), not mentioning the fact that able-bodied adults haven’t been eligible for cash welfare for more than two decades. Vance doesn’t count himself as a recipient of “government largesse” even though he’s benefited from public schools, a public university, the GI Bill, and Pell grants. He assumes that hillbillies are the only people who’ve suffered from the loss of jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle, when the millennial children of white professionals have endured similar downward mobility.

There is no discussion of the tremendous rise in income inequality in our country, and Vance ignores the plight of non-white working-class Americans. Significantly, he fails to address racism as a factor in the bitterness of the white working-class. (For a first-hand account of this racism, I can refer you to an African American friend of mine who was raised  in the same Middletown, Ohio, as JD Vance.) There’s a constant underlying assumption in Hillbilly Elegy that white working-class hillbillies are the only Americans who grow up in poverty-stricken or violent families. And that these hillbillies are the only ones who might be nonplussed by the elitism of the Ivy League and Wall Street. It ain’t so, JD.

Vance treasures his hillbilly background and yet despises it. He hasn’t quite figured out where he stands, though he aligns himself politically with conservative Republicans. Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect book, with far too many contradictions and generalizations and cherry-picked citations. But you may want to read it because it’s become a highly influential book in our present-day political climate of angry polarization.

Two Books by Strout

Anything Is Possible     Elizabeth Strout     (2017)

My Name is Lucy Barton     Elizabeth Strout     (2016)

Before you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 short story collection, Anything Is Possible, you might want to check out her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The two books are interconnected and can be read as a cohesive whole.

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy is a writer in New York City in the 1980s, with a husband and two young daughters. When Lucy is hospitalized for many weeks with a mysterious illness that arises after an appendectomy, her estranged mother travels from rural Illinois to her bedside. The two women reach an uneasy peace with each other, especially as they tell stories about the folks back home, in the (fictional) Amgash, Illinois, a depressed rural area that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago.

In Anything is Possible, set in a recent time period, we meet many of the characters mentioned in My Name is Lucy Barton, both in Amgash and in other locales:

  • Pete Barton, Lucy’s reclusive and oddly childlike brother, who still lives in the old Barton house.
  • Tommy Guptill, the friendly janitor from Lucy’s elementary school, who is now in his eighties and who keeps an eye on Pete.
  • Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who gets himself into a bind over a prostitute.
  • Patty Nicely, a contemporary of Lucy’s and now a high school guidance counselor, who tries to help Lucy’s difficult niece, Lila Lane.
  • Mary Mumford, the neighbor woman who left her husband of 51 years to run off to Italy with a younger man.
  • Vicky Lane, Lucy’s sister, who reminds Lucy about some of the horrors the siblings endured in their childhood.
  • Abel Blaine, Lucy’s cousin, who has built a successful business in Chicago.

Lucy herself enters the linked stories of Anything Is Possible in many ways. She’s become an acclaimed writer and has published a book that the people of Amgash can buy at the local bookstore. Chicago is one of the stops on Lucy’s tour to promote her book, so she stops in Amgash to see her siblings, Pete and Vicky, in one of the stories. Take note that the fictional Lucy’s fictional “memoir” seems to be very much like Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

Strout toys with the vagaries of memory in both these books. In Anything Is Possible, we get much more detail about the childhood suffering of the Barton kids—details that were glossed over and somewhat sanitized in My Name is Lucy Barton. The other residents of Amgash are also revealed to have their share of specific miseries, including sexual abuse, mental illness, and crushing poverty. The power of money emerges as another theme. Lucy Barton, who had to scrounge in dumpsters for food as a child, lives the up-by-her-bootstraps version of the American dream when she gets into college and becomes a successful writer. Others in her small town remain impoverished. Sometimes people are poor simply because of bad luck, and money certainly does not buy happiness or stability for the characters in Anything Is Possible.

The prose in these two books is spare, with every word well chosen. The emotions are raw but presented with subtle empathy. Strout’s previous books include the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), which is, like Anything Is Possible, set up as linked short stories, and the novel The Burgess Boys (2013). Basically, read anything by Elizabeth Strout that you can get. You won’t be disappointed.

Tasting the Moon with Chabon

Moonglow     Michael Chabon     (2016)

With a review of a work by Michael Chabon, it’s difficult to avoid gushing out superlatives. Bare superlatives, however, don’t give the readers of the review a taste of the specific delicacies that are on offer in the writing. And Moonglow has many delicious bites.

It’s not a spoiler if you know that the Michael Chabon who is the narrator of Moonglow is fictional and is not the same as the Michael Chabon who is the author of the novel. And Moonglow is truly a novel, though it’s set up as an autobiographical and biographical memoir. Chabon-the-author is expert at inducing you to believe that the fiction he’s creating is really the reconstructed history of his family.

In recent interviews, Chabon-the-author has made it clear that he’s used only brief incidents from his family history as sites from which he has leapt into the fictional worlds of Moonglow. He prefaces the book with a tongue-in-cheek “Author’s Note” in which he disclaims veracity for the “facts” he presents. But as a reader of Moonglow you keep wanting to believe that Chabon-the-narrator is Chabon-the-author, against all this evidence.

The underlying premise of Moonglow is straightforward. In 1989, Chabon-the-narrator sat at the bedside of his dying grandfather as the grandfather spoke about events of his life. He was a daredevil kid in Philadelphia, an engineer with tremendous inventive capacity, an intelligence officer in Europe at the tail end of World War II, an inmate in a minimum security prison in New York State in the 1950s, a snake-hunting retiree in Florida. The grandfather (who never has any other name in the novel) was passionately in love with his wife, a Jewish French refugee ravaged by the Holocaust, whom he met in 1947. The story of this grandmother weaves in and out of the novel about the grandfather.

As with Chabon’s  Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), World War II hangs menacingly over the characters. Having wedged his grandfather in to the Allied mop-up operations in Germany in 1945, Chabon-the-author can explore alternate realities that never made it into the history books. What if, for example, a Jewish American officer with extensive knowledge of rocketry were to capture Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun? What if that officer were to uncover the trove of documents revealing the secrets of the V-2 rocket?

Speculative history is a specialty of Chabon-the-author, most notably executed, I think, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). In that novel, the alternate history is set up when Jews from around the world establish a homeland in Sitka, Alaska, in the 1940s, and the tale plays out for the next sixty years.

Jewish identity is a key theme for Chabon-the-author, but I see other themes also echoing through his writing: the malleability of fact, the raw beauty of the everyday, the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil (in other people or in the international order). A trademark stylistic device of his that I especially admire is what I call his “extended list,” in which he ranges through all the possibilities of a situation. Here he’s describing sleeping conditions for soldiers in war-torn Europe:

“My grandfather had shared all manner of billets: with dogfaces and officers, in misery and in comfort, in attack and in retreat, and pinned down by snow or German ordnance. He had bedded down under a bearskin in a schloss and in foxholes flecked pink with the tissue of previous occupants. If an hour’s sleep were to be had, he seized it, in the bedrooms or basements of elegant townhouses, in ravaged hotels, on clean straw and straw that crawled with vermin, on featherbeds and canvas webbing slung across the bed of a half-track, on mud, sandbags, and raw pine planks.”

Mimicking the discursive flow of reminiscence, Moonglow see-saws through the life of the grandfather, constantly shifting time and place, occasionally returning to the 1989 scene of the grandson feeding Jello to the dying man. Chabon-the-narrator does not set down his grandfather’s words verbatim but rather casts the episodes he recounts in third person. This technique allows Chabon-the-author to insert astonishing detail. One of my favorite scenes has the grandfather, who does not usually observe religious rites, stopping at a Reform temple on a Friday to pray the kaddish, the prayer of mourning. The congregation is housed in a building that was formerly an International House of Pancakes. As the service goes on, the grandfather feels distant from the other worshipers:

“They might have been strangers in a bus station, solo travelers bound for all points. They might have been separate parties at a pancake house, awash in the syrup emerging from a Wurlitzer organ, played by an old Jew with a Shinola-black pompadour, dressed in a curious tan coverall or jumpsuit and platform saddle shoes.”

Oh, that’s just a taste. You should savor the entire book.