Women on My Bookshelf
Next week it is my turn to present the choices for the next Relief Society book club. It’s rather delicious to peruse the bookshelf, looking for appealing options. I searched for a theme, aware that – as a quasi church-sponsored club — the books need to feel safe and accessible to a wide swath of participants. Perhaps because it is summer — the one time of year I miss the West and her dry heat, cool summer nights, and mountain wildflowers – I returned to the land. More specifically: women’s relationships with the land.
Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge came to mind immediately. Williams chronicles the flooding of the Great Salt Lake and her mother’s battle with breast cancer. Each struggle becomes a metaphor for the other, allowing William’s to probe her connection to Mother Earth, her mother, and her effervescent grandmother. It is also a story of Williams’ Mormon faith, the limits of her faith, and the expansion of her faith. A great book, but I’ve already discussed it in a Boston book club.
Here, then, are the three choices I’ve settled on:
Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, Kathleen Norris
Kathleen Norris left New York City to return to her childhood land: the Dakotas. Not for a month or a year, but for a lifetime. Norris is a poet first, and she lovingly examines the people who inhabit this landscape. In doing so, she explores the thin line between the inward and outward geography. It’s not a long book, but it’s a lingering read – I find myself taking in an essay or two, stopping to think, slipping the book on the bedside table, and drifting into a reflective sleep. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll be posting about her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.)
Chasing Redbird, Sharon Creech
If this is book is picked, I’ll ask participants to also read Walk Two Moons by the same children’s author. The former novel is set on Kentucky farmland. Zinnia is an overlooked middle child who is effectively raised by her Aunt and Uncle who “adopt” her after the death of their own daughter. One summer, she uncovers a neglected trail, and when her aunt dies suddenly, clearing this trail becomes a pressing, almost spiritual compulsion. In the latter novel, thirteen-year-old Sal goes with her grandparents on a cross-country journey to visit her mother, whose departure has uprooted her sense of self. Every couple of years, I pick one of these for a class read-aloud. I always pre-read the last chapters of Walk Two Moons, hoping to keep my composure in front of my class. Never works.
O Pioneers! Willa Cather
My husband has been pestering me for years to read this book. “You’re from pioneer stock!” he says. “You pride yourself in your strong Mormon feminist heritage! You still love Little House on the Prairie, for goodness sake!” He finally admitted that he long had a crush on the heroine, Alexandra. After finishing the book last night, I’m nurturing my own crush – for the language, the landscape, the author, and of course the spirited, resolute heroine. I’m not sure I’ve encountered another woman quite like her in American literature. In short, Alexandra’s Swedish father settles his family on the unforgiving high plains of Nebraska in the late 1800s. On his deathbed, he charges his only daughter with stewardship over the house and three younger brothers. He knows that she has a sense, intellect, and character the brothers lack. Alexandra loves the land and feels circumscribed by it; she is fiercely devoted to her family but also to her own convictions. I’m not sure how Cather has escaped me all these years. Alcott and Montgomery intrigued me as a teen, but I now find myself a little impatient with their occasionally over-wrought sentimentalism. It’s been a while since I read a novel where the language itself seduced me, where the images came from such a lovely voice – like this passage when Alexandra returns from visiting a graveyard in the pouring rain.
Ever since he died, I’ve suffered so when it rained. Now that I’ve been out in it with him, I shan’t dread it. After you once get cold clear through, the feeling of the rain on you is sweet. It seems to bring back feelings you had when you are a baby. It carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can’t see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and aren’t afraid of them. Maybe it’s like that with the dead. If they feel anything at all, it’s the old things, before they were born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does when they are little.
Just after I finished reading this book, I listened to John and Jana Remy’s pod-cast. I hope she someday posts the essay she reads at the end (is it published elsewhere, Jana?). In it, she describes a journey to an old family cemetery. Of course, all of this has me thinking about my own relationship with the land — and visits to family graves nestled in a remote Idaho valley — but this is long enough for today.
Do you have favorite books about women and nature? Do you have places that you could subtitle “A Spiritual Biography”?