Cal­i­for­nian’s memoir re­veals a fam­ily’s strong fe­male roots

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY KATE TUTTLE News­day

Some mem­oirs look deeply in­ward, ex­am­in­ing how the self is formed in the cru­cible of the world. Su­san Straight’s “In the Coun­try of Women” works in the op­po­site way: ad­dressed to the au­thor’s three daugh­ters, this is a book that spi­rals out­ward, gath­er­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing sto­ries of an­ces­tors, fam­ily and com­mu­nity. It’s a book with more peo­ple in it than an en­cy­clo­pe­dia – so many it can be difficult to keep track of every­one – and its uni­verse of peo­ple and sto­ries is com­plex, lay­ered and ul­ti­mately rav­ish­ing.

Straight, the au­thor of eight nov­els, is a Cal­i­for­nian, and she sees her­self in the words of Joan Did­ion’s Cal­i­for­nia es­say “Some Dream­ers of the Golden Dream.” Her peo­ple are work­ing-class women, many times mar­ried, moth­er­ing their own chil­dren and those of oth­ers, liv­ing among lemon groves and tum­ble­weeds and Santa Ana winds.

“I wanted,” she writes, “to write about us.” Her “us” in­cludes the fam­ily of ex-hus­band Dwayne Sims, her high school sweet­heart and fa­ther of her daugh­ters. She is white, he is black; to­gether they are “the child of im­mi­grants, mar­ried to the child of peo­ple once en­slaved.”

Straight re­calls a grad­u­ate school class­mate sneer­ingly ask­ing her in a work­shop, “Why do you keep writ­ing about all these work­ing-class peo­ple?” Writ­ing these fam­i­lies’ sto­ries, in the con­text of Amer­i­can his­tory, pol­i­tics and lit­er­ary taste, is it­self a rad­i­cal act.

Among the book’s great char­ac­ters are Dwayne’s fore­moth­ers. They in­clude women like Fine, born dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion, or­phaned at 6, taken (but not taken in) by a white fam­ily, grow­ing up dirt poor and bear­ing three chil­dren as a teenager.

“There was in­side her a core of fury and in­de­pen­dence and self-preser­va­tion, the ge­netic her­itage of sur­vival,” Straight writes as she maps Fine’s jour­ney from Ten­nessee to Texas.

There was Daisy, born in Mis­sis­sippi, whose mother was run down by a car driven by white men – be­fore the car came, Daisy’s mother threw her 5-year-old daugh­ter out of harm’s way. “Vi­o­lence like that en­ters the blood,” Straight writes. “Changes the DNA.” Daisy grew to mother four daugh­ters and trav­eled to Cal­i­for­nia to make the fam­ily’s home in River­side. She died the year be­fore Straight mar­ried her grand­son.

Straight’s fam­ily tree has its own strong women – a strict Swiss nurse, sis­ters who left the Colorado prairie to travel west. Still, it’s the black women, in­clud­ing her own daugh­ters, that this book cel­e­brates.

When Dwayne first brought her home, a skinny white girl, Straight writes that she “felt the stares of amuse­ment, pro­tec­tive sus­pi­cion and side­long glances.” But his mother, Al­berta, shep­herded her in­side to make a plate, and in time she grew to be­long to this sprawl­ing black fam­ily, to take her place among the aun­ties who over­see all the younger gen­er­a­tions.

As the mother of three black daugh­ters, she learned to do their hair. “In our fam­ily, and in black com­mu­ni­ties at large like ours, the care and main­te­nance of your hair meant more than just bar­rettes and pony­tails; your hair re­flected our pride and care and love,” she writes. While other white women failed to un­der­stand, car­ing for her daugh­ter’s beau­ti­ful curls “was the truest part of my ex­is­tence as a mother.”

“They never tell us about the odysseys of women,” Straight writes in the book’s pro­logue. “In the Coun­try of Women” of­fers a cor­rec­tive, pro­vid­ing a boldly wo­man-cen­tric view of his­tory, as large as mi­gra­tion and as small as the act of braid­ing a child’s hair. It’s a book about sur­vival, moth­er­hood, and love, and it’s as big and messy and beau­ti­ful as all of these things.

Cat­a­pult/TNS

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