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Chicago Tribune, 2 April 2006

Memoirists Explore How Place Shapes Us

by Beth Kephart

The Place Your Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home
by Melissa Holbrook Pierson
Norton, 206 pages, $24.95

A Private History of Awe
by Scott Russell Sanders
North Point, 322 pages, $25

Some of the best writers working today are writing books that read like prayers--urgent missives about landscape, memory, fate that hold us still and make us think about all that is lost when we fail to pay attention.  There's Howard Mansfield, whose beautiful books (The Bones of the Earth, The Same Ax, Twice”) hearken back to a time when trees were sacred and houses had souls.  There are Rebecca Solnit, Terry Tempest Williams and Kate Braverman, writing in sometimes wild but often exhilarating circles about place and evanescence.

In their respective new books, Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Scott Russell Sanders likewise explore the ways in which landscape shapes our souls.  How do we honor the past? they wonder.  How do we stay alert to present time?

Pierson's book, “The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home,” is a composite of three longish essays, each pinned to a different sort of nostalgia.  The first limns Akron, Ohio, the author's childhood home, a place of such goodness and happiness, of such wide-open skies and lazy days, that Pierson proclaims a fervent wish to live again in her own past. 

The second essay focuses on a darker corner of the world--Hoboken, N.J., where Pierson spent her young adulthood, a most unhappy time.  "I had unwittingly chosen the one square mile of continental United States that could so perfectly mimic an inner landscape of despair that the two of us merged into one lonely, unpeopled, gray expanse of decrepit lostness," she writes.  Remembering Hoboken makes Pierson nostalgic for the hope that things are destined to get better.

Finally, Pierson takes us to the purloined landscape of upstate New York, where rivers and streams have been rerouted and remade so New York City might be assured an adequate water supply.  It is here that Pierson reminds us of all that has been lost to bulldozers, axes and greed--here where she takes her most effective stand against more so-called progress.

Pierson's premise is marvelous, and surely she's impassioned.  But the book suffers from a feral and oddly self-satisfied writing style that teeters--always--on the edge of a misplaced metaphor, a weak association, a tangent without a cause, an energetic but slightly less than coherent call to action.  The pronouns "I," "you," and "we" dance about, sentence to sentence, requiring the reader to keep a hop-about-pace with point of view.  Conjecture becomes memoir becomes philosophy, all between two periods.  Shreds of arcane history are thrown into the mix, then vanish from the page before they can be assimilated into the larger whole.  Fervent conversational asides clot the tangle of arguments.

My copy of this book is marked with a thousand question marks.  Indeed, my pen was out on the very first page, the very first paragraph, which presents a whiplash of time that is hung on a borrowed (from James Burke's The Pinball Effect”) metaphor:

"“You are a gigantic, unknowable, towering, tragicomic construction.  You can also be traced back to a cell.  But this cell needed to meet with bizarre chance so that it was this amoeba (and not that other amoeba) that washed up onshore and started changing shape.  Had the weather been slightly different that day, or the sand a tad more wet, the trajectory of the pinball would have been altered by a fraction of a degree.  Then it would have banked off the side at a different angle, hit the bumper below the other one, vibrated between bumpers fourteen times instead of twelve with the attendant bells and racking up of points, and finally flushed after one and not two successful applications of the flipper."

Let me be clear: I'm all for lyrical slides, for sweet, unexpected connections, for words that carry something new my way, something exciting.  I write poetry and read it--neither expect nor want language to be straightforward, easy.  But verbal precision is an imperative when taking flights like this.  The eye should not be made to stop over phrases such as "“hit the bumper below the other one" ”that require too much conjuring work on the part of a willing reader.

Scott Russell Sanders, on the other hand, achieves clarity and transcendence in his memoir, “A Private History of Awe.” In sorting through the first six decades of his life, Sanders keeps his focus on those moments when something telling happened, something that advanced his understanding of the world.  He keeps his language geared toward the simple, but not simplistic, for, as he writes toward the book's close, "“To be lucid, I decided, was more generous to readers, as well as more demanding of the writer, than to be obscure."

Sanders is interested in that "“rapturous, fearful, bewildering emotion" ”we call awe.  He remembers his past as a way of reaching out to us--of reminding us that we must stay awake to thunderstorms and a baby's sighs, to science and stories and love, to "“the holy shimmer at the heart of things."

The son of an irascible but lovable father and a wise but commandeering mother, Sanders chose to take the best from both, to be open to the knowledge each sought to give.

"In the house and garden, I learned from Mama to love books, to revel in flowers, to honor my feelings, to appreciate the shape and texture and tone of things, to confess amazement.  In the garage and barn and woods, working alongside Dad, I learned to love animals, to delight in the use of tools, to admire good work and the skill required to do it, to laugh at myself and the whole quirky human race, to rejoice in the wild energy flowing through my body and the earth."”

Sanders' earliest memories are rooted in the Tennessee farm that was his first home, a place perfectly suited to satisfy his voracious need to know the names and tastes and shapes of all that was within his reach.  Things changed when his family moved to a place called the Ravenna Arsenal in northeastern Ohio, where his father helped make bombs for the Korean War, but Sanders' lust for life remains undaunted as he grows up to study science and literature, to fall in love, to become a father himself, and then a grandfather.

The past, in A Private History of Awe,” is tempered by Sanders' pressing present day: his once vivacious mother now elderly, forgetful and confused; his daughter's young child now so full of quest and wide-eyed wonder.  Skillfully, he weaves their relationships with the world into the story of his own, a tactic that enables him to take the broader view.  Here's my favorite passage from his book, a passage born of deep reflection yet clear and clean as an untainted mountain stream.  A passage that calls us all, no matter our age, to stop and pay attention:

"“A child is more like a forest, gathering every drop of rain or flake of snow, every fallen leaf, the slant of sunlight and glint of moonlight, the fluster and song of birds, the paths worn by deer, the litter of bones and nuts and seeds, and whatever the wind delivers, taking it all in, turning everything into new growth."”

Copyright © 2006 Chicago Tribune

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