Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Under a Wing by Reeve Lindbergh

Under a Wing: A Memoir by Reeve Lindbergh was the February selection for Captive Thoughts Book Club, and though I wasn't able to make it to the discussion, I wanted to keep up with the reading schedule anyway. I came to this memoir knowing very little about the Lindbergh family. I knew of Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, but hardly anything else - I was even clueless about the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping and murder.

Quite honestly, I was a little skeptical about delving into the lives of a celebrity family, even if their notoriety was 50-60 years ago. I wondered if I really wanted to spend my time reading about the private lives of public figures. But, as the youngest of the 6 Lindbergh children, Reeve's writing reveals the personal aspects of their lives, presenting them as very real and very human. My skepticism was quickly dispelled as the Lindbergh family portrait appeared in greater detail with each chapter. In spite of their fame and wealth, or maybe because of it, they dealt with many real issues and concerns that are common to families of any social status. Reeve herself talks of processing this in coming to understand her own history by visiting her father's boyhood home in Minnesota: "It was a hard task, but a familiar one, to reclaim him from his own history and make him mine. This effort in itself causes one of the strangest intermingling I have come to know as the child of famous parents: the give-and-take between public impression and private memory, each informing, educating, correcting, and ultimately humanizing the other, over time" (195).

Reeve's reflections on the significant events that shaped her family's dynamics are perceptive (coming from the youngest child) and sympathetic (understandably so), and this unique perspective allows the reader to easily identify with the historical figures of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. She reveals both strengths and foibles of her famous parents and how their influence shaped the lives of their children. Even when she expresses her frustrations with her father's seemingly endless rules, opinions, and advice, her enduring love and respect for both her parents are evident, as when she writes, "When our father left us to travel around the world, and even when he left the world entirely, at his death in 1974, there was an element of relief in his absence, some quietness that we had not ever known in our lives before. But he left behind a vast hole in our universe, as great as the death of a star" (49).

Or in another passage: "I believed he was unjust, demanding, and difficult, just as often as I believed he was the strongest, most exciting, most intelligent, and most truthful person in the world. I took for granted that he would protect me from all dangers, from floods and blizzards to tooth decay and television. I knew that I could count on him, always, even though he could not always count on me" (77).

It is evident that Reeve learned the craft of writing from her mother, and I found her comments on her mother's writing and her own very interesting. “‘Write it down!’ our mother had told us whenever we said something that particularly interested or touched her: write down that sharp insight, that funny story, that especially appealing turn of phrase. She taught us that any experience worth living through was worth writing about, but beyond this, she made us feel that the act of writing about it significantly affected the experience itself. I did not know whether writing enhanced an even, transforming it into something more important than it would have been had it gone unrecorded, or whether writing simply made it more real…” (177).

On a more personal level, she relates how difficult it was for her as a child to leave her mother alone to write in peace and quiet. "What I did not understand, and only much later began to comprehend, is that my mother's work, that product of our separation, is also the way back to her again. She herself created the pathway, a connection between us that is much deeper and more lasting than any I had ever anticipated in childhood. All I had to do to find it was read her books" (59-60). In a similar vein, Reeve asks some hard questions about a child's perceptions of a parent's inaccessibility: "Is it true that all parents are too busy to pay full attention to their children? Or is the truth instead that no child can ever be satisfied, because no child can have every ounce of a parent’s attention?" (167) I've pondered these questions myself, not as a daughter, but as a parent, as I've sensed my daughter's frustrations to have all of Mommy, all the time.

Reeve's own writing style is transparent, witty, and picturesque. This passage about train travel reminded me of the many reflections on the passage of time in Rebecca: "On trains, even now, I have the same sense that whatever I pass is immediately and forever in the past, whether I am on a familiar line or in a foreign country: this barn, this house, this child on a bicycle, that horse tossing its head in a green meadow, those mountains in the distance, that one quick glimpse of a city street and all its traffic, today's lightening sky with cloud configurations particular to this very morning and no other, all are here together at once, now, with me, and then all are gone. Never again this conjunction, this moment. All gone forever" (103).

Most of all this is a story of a family: a family with its own peculiarities, its own troubles, and its own deep founded love and honor, as expressed so beautifully in this passage: “‘Can’t your family think of any women’s names besides Constance, Elizabeth, and Anne?’ a confused friend crossly asked one of my cousins not long ago. The answer is that we can and have, but there remains in the family an abiding loyalty to those three Morrow sisters and their mother. Something about these small, strong women, held in affection over the generations, makes their daughters and granddaughters look at our own newborn daughters with respect, awe, and that intergenerational astonishment that comes to women who have just given birth. And so we repeat those names: Elizabeth (Elisabeth), and Constance, and Anne” (142).

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this memoir, but I suppose I really shouldn't have been. I always seem to enjoy memoirs (as long as they are well-written and tasteful). A good memoir can help us to see that the ups and downs of our own lives - the love, fear, joy, anger, grief, and skeletons in the closet, too - are not so uncommon after all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

After reading Hannah Coulter last November, I wanted to read more of Wendell Berry's tales of Port William, Kentucky. Berry's first novel about Port William happens to be about the boyhood of Hannah's second husband, Nathan Coulter, so that seemed like a good place to start since some of the characters were sure to be familiar and it might provide another perspective on Hannah's story.

Quite honestly, I didn't find this novel to have the same charm and wisdom as Hannah Coulter. It is a coming-of-age story that offers insights into family relationships and values in a different time and place, but I really felt that the protagonist is underdeveloped. Like Hannah, Nathan Coulter narrates his own story. But while Hannah shares many of her own thoughts and emotions, Nathan is not so transparent, and it seems that he fades into the background of the story while we discover more about his father, older brother Tom, and Uncle Burley from his observations and comments.

The relationships between the men in this multi-generational family could be case studies in themselves. Uncle Burley is quite the character, and we learn some of the antics of his younger years from a boy's perspective. Perhaps most interesting is Tom's growing distance, first from his brother, as Tom's interests shift as he matures, and then from his father, when a fight pushes him out the door to independence and manhood. Nathan doesn't share nearly so much about his own development - physical, emotional, or otherwise - though his attitudes and observations certainly grow in depth and maturity as his story progresses.

The ideas of place and "the Membership" are not as developed in this novel as in Hannah Coulter. Rather the simple ebb and flow of life, from mundane chores to carnival games to matters of life and death, form the theme and structure of the story. As Uncle Burley observes when an older woman of Port William dies one day and a baby is born to another family the next, ". . .that was just the way things were. They put one in and pull another one out" (35).

I'm sure I will return to Port William every so often in my reading journey, and I'd welcome any suggestions for which story to pick up next. Although I doubt that such a place and time could be wholly recreated in the twenty-first century, there are certainly insights to be gained and lessons to be learned by the people and place Berry has created in Port William.