Viking, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle
is a memoir that should appeal to anyone who began life in the Midwest - that region of the United States which seems to be less a destination as a place to live than a place from which famous people brag about having roots. Diane Johnson is no exception to this rule as she was born and raised in Moline, Illinois, '
a pleasant place, surrounded by cornfields, I had always longed to get out of,
' which she managed to do while she was still in her teens. Her inspiration for this book began in France, however.
hile visiting friends in France, Diane was amazed when her friend Simone, who is French and married to an American, remarked that Americans are indifferent to history and '
seem to think that we French are pathetic for knowing and caring so much about our background.
' Even though Diane's husband John attempted to rebut this statement and an interesting discussion ensued among the mostly Americans who were present, Diane pondered it and eventually researched and wrote this story of her own family's history in the Midwest. She included snippets from diaries and letters which were written by her forebears who came to America from France in the 1700s.
erhaps as one gets older it's natural to look back on your life and wonder how the experiences of your youth might have influenced the way you evolved into the retired person you have become. The increase in the numbers of old people compared to the youthful members of society must also contribute to the recent popularity of memoirs. Diane is a little older than I am and is a successful writer with many published books to her name, but I, too, was born and lived in the Midwest during most of my childhood. Her memories flesh out the bits and pieces of my own since when thinking about my childhood, my memories are more snapshots than detailed events. Diane, though, tells complete stories about her school and her friends in Moline, and her tales of summers spent at her family's cabin in the woods relate the usual activities of each member of the family, including her own. Each year there was a lot of work involved in repairing any damage that the cabin had sustained over the winter, but there was also time for games and more freedom for the children than they had in town.
he lives of her female relatives from the distant past interest her not only for the small, rough huts where they actually lived, which were even more basic than her family's rustic cabin, but also for similarities between their occupations as mothers and housewives and the lives of Midwesterners in Moline as she was growing up. Particularly interesting is the story of Catharine Martin, who was born in 1800 and who wrote a hundred pages in 1876 about her life so that '
some of my grandchildren or grandchildren's children will think enough of their parentage to read what their old grandmother writes when she is ... 76 years old, and probably will be laid in the dust long before this is looked at.
iane knew as a child that she didn't want to be trapped in the sort of life where she cooked, cleaned and raised children with no intellectual outlets. It's ironic that she quit college after two years to get married and became pregnant soon after, but since her marriage meant moving to California with her new husband, her life did change radically. Once she was living on the West Coast, she never again returned to live in the Midwest.
s it the moving away from the place where you grew up that shapes us or the place where you were raised? Her horizons expanded with her move, in spite of her life choice to follow in the footsteps of so many of her female forebears by getting married and having children. Certainly living in the small town of Moline helped to guide her as she grew up, but her loving, stable family was also significant. We don't all grow up to be famous authors, but her story tells about a time and place when communication with the greater world was far more limited than it is today. While the people in those little towns didn't have the sorts of connection to the wider world that are available now, they took advantage of the information that they did have by reading widely, listening to the radio, and later watching television.
ore importantly they tried to lead good lives. Perhaps one purpose of memoirs is to study our history in an individual way in an effort to learn what might have gone wrong in our society as a whole, as well as what changes could help us to improve our lives and our country. I think that Diane Johnson has done a wonderful job of telling us her family's history, and by relating the stories of her great-great grandmother and others of her ancestors, she provided us with a strong argument against her friend Simone's statement about Americans.
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