Thursday, February 24, 2011

Treading lightly in Memoir Land

I'm not big on the memoir, which, according to my very best friend, stems from a distaste for works of fiction (including films or plays) exhibiting self-awareness.  That is, the further away from pure storytelling a book gets, the less apt I am to enjoy it.  In the case of memoirs, it's easy to slide from storytelling to self-indulgence, whether in confessional or melodramatic form.  So I steer away from the genre in general and have been largely disappointed with what I've read so far, even including the wildly popular Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris (although the latter holds wonderful talks and appearances).

There are times when Jesus Land veers into typical memoir territory like youthful alienation and early sexual experiences, but Julia Scheeres is far too good of a writer to let those elements balloon into overarching themes.  She sticks to the unusual and even tragic aspects of her childhood and adolescence without ever sinking into self-pity.  The title refers both to the area of the country in which she was raised - rural Indiana - and the strict religiosity of her parents, particularly her cold and strict mother.  These parents, in a spirit of Christian charity later all but debunked by Julia's shrewd observations of familial relationships, adopted two African-American boys when Julia was a child.  The one closer to her age, David, came first, and the two developed a close but at times volatile relationship tested by racism in school and the various struggles between their parents and siblings.

The memoir takes us from 1980s Lafayette, Indiana and the vagaries of fitting in (made all the more difficult with the different-looking brother), to a religious school in the Dominican Republic, where David and Julia's bond coalesces into a life-affirming and heartbreakingly beautiful entity all its own.  All along the journey of the book, Scheeres uses local details of weather and scenery to keep us anchored to the backdrop as well as the story.  Her skill in doing so becomes obvious with the physical disparity between the book's two major settings.  More importantly, however, the book is as close to pure storytelling I imagine a memoir could get; like a novelist, Scheeres lays out a frame of reference and consequently never loses the reader's apt attention.  I never felt distracted by her voice or by her emotional response to what she went through as a teenager.  She never veered into coldness, but she understood her mission: to tell her story, to make it readable, and to draw us into a world existing only between the covers of her book.


Sherry said...

Thanks for following my blog! I've added you to my blogroll. Can't wait to finish reading through your blog. Memoirs are selective for me. I have to be interested in the person before I read them.

What Book Today said...

Thanks Sherry! I love your blog. I totally agree about memoirs. They can really take a wrong turn if the person isn't extraordinarily interesting.

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