Elise Stuart’s terrific new memoir is unorthodox. As a former Poet Laureate of Silver City and Grant County, she includes poems at scattered intervals, which illustrate the events and emotions of her youth. Her tale, while sequential, glosses over some years and characters and lingers on others. For example, we barely get to know the men in her life, including the father of her children. However, there is one character who stands out like a fox in a chicken coop: the author’s mother, warts-and-all.
The apparent selfishness of the older lady sometimes beggars belief: she takes off when Stuart is ten – and returns without explanation; she expects her daughter to buy the plane ticket for her imminent move; and she leaves boxes of papers and crockery at Stuart’s house demanding that Stuart pays for their shipment. The mother comes across as a sociopath, a diva in furs who would rather be feeding her ego than her children.
And yet there is redemption for this troubled soul. By the end–of the book and of her mother’s life–Stuart has somehow managed to forgive the sins of the parent and see through the appalling behavior to reach a state of acceptance. She loves her mother “as she is” – a quite remarkable feat of generosity. It’s only at this late stage of the book that we learn about the mother’s undiagnosed mental issues. In today’s parlance, she was bi-polar. She also underwent shock therapy, a now widely discredited treatment, after which she was “never the same.”
One thing I loved about the book is the milieu: the hippie era. Communes, free love, road trips, a little psychedelia – these are nicely captured in details and anecdotes: Stuart laboriously bakes bread for the commune and watches it get gobbled up instantly. On her return from a trip to Canada, her car is torn apart by customs officials who don’t trust long-haired hippie types.
The main story–the neglectful mother and her sensitive-soul child who grows up to be an artist–is familiar yet still compelling. What makes it memorable here is the narrator’s vulnerability. We see the little girl struggling to break free of her cocoon and then, somehow, miraculously, while the world is looking the other way, she emerges like a butterfly. It’s a tale, beautifully told, of grace and forgiveness.