San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 25 March 2006, p. 2
Low-drama life provokes awe in memoir
A Private History of Awe
Reviewed by Ethan Gilsdorf
In the prologue to his Baby Boomer memoir, A Private History of Awe, Scott Russell Sanders declares that he has “checked” his recollections against the memories of others, against newspapers and photos, and against the “record scrawled” in his diaries.
“But for the most part I’ve had to rely on that notorious trickster, memory,” Sanders confesses. “I don’t pretend to offer a transcript of long-ago conversations, or to document settings and events as a camera might do, but merely to say how these scenes have stayed with me.”
Given memoir’s post-A Million Little Pieces recovery period, the disclaimer makes sense. James Frey’s infidelities have caused everyone in the publishing empire — writers, agents, editors, publicists, book reviewers and talk show hosts — to take work purporting to be “a real-life story” with a million grains of salt. Skepticism, if not suspicion, is the order of the day. The cult of the memoir should undergo a much-deserved correction. In the kingdom of letters, it is likely the land of autobiography and the realm of fiction will return to their historical borders. At least for a time.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ modest, sincere, low-drama life history is a welcome curative. A longtime essayist and professor at Indiana University and winner of the Lannan Literary Award, Sanders casts his life amid his mother’s demise and his granddaughter’s first year of life. The maneuver works, as his mostly chronological narrative unfolds between two complementary events: an infant gathering sensory experience and an elderly woman losing her memory, and thus, herself. These bookends inspire Sanders to chronicle his life: “I will eventually forget my own stories, which is one reason why I write them down.”
On the surface, Sanders’ memoir traces a familiar, if not stereotypical, American coming-of-age trajectory. His rural, 1950s upbringing in a nuclear family provides a solid religious and moral foundation. His reflections recount a naive child’s confusion and excitement while discovering adult mysteries. His boyhood leads to high school dances and science fairs, love and marriage. The story ends in 1973, with the birth of his first child, the narrator having reached key milestones of responsibility outside the family and self.
But the book’s thematic heart charts a different course. Sanders wants to plumb his private definition of awe, what he describes as “wonder … clouded by fear,” “embracing the dread as well as the reverence.” His encounters with awe become moments of awakening, connections to places, persons and events, tainted by fear and death but laden with possibility for life change. A brutal deer hunt forges a reverence for nature; life on a military base sows pacifist ideals; an interracial friendship reveals other worldviews.
As he matures, bedrock Christian beliefs and explanations are shaken by science and literature.
Safekeeping, by his parents and the nation’s leaders, is called into question. The book’s most dramatic passage, his taking a stand against the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, helps him comprehend a new kind of patriotism. The result of Sanders’ moral and spiritual deliberations is a generous book, unafraid to face broad emotions and tackle tough subjects such as love for parents and country, yet still wrought of life’s tiny and telling pieces.
The only subject approaching Frey-like self-indulgence could have been Sanders’ writing on his alcoholic father. Another writer, with another experience, might have heaped on blame or let anger bubble over, but Sanders’ approach is unexpectedly tender. He portrays his dad not as a villain but a kindly man unable to placate his own demons. Still, he makes clear that alcoholism’s effect on a family is always destructive. The young Sanders must close himself “around the secret the way bark grows over fence wire nailed to a tree.”
At places, nostalgia gets the better of the narrator. In a childhood scene of heading to the hospital after his father’s near-fatal brush with boozing, Sanders puts these maudlin words into his brother’s mouth, “‘But if he does [die], will you be my daddy?’” followed by the sentimental “Glenn stared up at me with his chocolate eyes.”
But overall, strong writing makes the commonplace compelling. This may be a white man’s, middle-class, educated life story. And it may cover familiar territory, especially as Sanders’ tale gathers political gravitas through the hope-crushing assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the ethical chaos of Vietnam. And proving how the 1960s defined him, Sanders may break no considerable new ground. Still, he turns over the old, nutrient-rich soil of a life that could be anyone’s, in prose that is confident, precise and most importantly, free from self-aggrandizement.
Memory is fickle, and embellishment (or, its opposite, short-changing the self) may be unavoidable. Yet memoirists have the right to call things as they’ve seen them. At least in Sanders’ hands, subjectivity seems natural and benign. Let more books like this flood the marketplace, and memoir’s age of exaggeration and hubris may finally be over. An ordinary life may even be possible again.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a Boston poet and journalist.
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