By Tasha Cotter
Lately, I’ve been immersed in two dazzling books: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams.
Both books deal with ideas of motherhood in ways that are touching, sometimes sentimental, but always deeply honest. So often we read mother-daughter experiences that seem at odds with each other—hostile and distant or sarcastic and dismissive. In these works we begin to sense a wealth of unexplored history. In my own work, I am increasingly exploring family history and hidden narratives, so both of these books were especially useful in helping me see the possibilities when writing about themes of childhood, growth, and the mother/daughter relationship.
I first read Elizabeth Strout as a graduate student in Eastern Kentucky University’s MFA program. Her book Olive Kittredge was required reading and it mesmerized me from the start. The book went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s been over five years since I read it, and what I remember most was how well-drawn each of these humble, unassuming characters were. Reading Strout was a revelation for me as a writer: Olive Kittredge is a book of thirteen linked narratives, and the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives. The book left me thinking, I didn’t know you could do that as a writer! Her new book, My Name is Lucy Barton, is equally wonderful. The book opens in such an unassuming way—a woman is confined to a hospital room, her mother comes to visit. Over the course of the novel, though, both of their lives open up, transforming from the ordinary into extraordinary. Strout has such a gift for humanizing her characters. I picked the book up at the library on a lark—I wasn’t won over by the description on the inside cover, but I remembered how much I loved Olive Kittredge, and I was not disappointed.
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer I’ve been meaning to get around to for a long time. She writes about family, landscapes, people, and public lands—themes I sometimes orbit with my own work. I thought reading her work may be like finding a kindred voice—it was.
Her book When Women Were Birds offers a poetic meditation on a writer’s inheritance—it’s subtitled 54 Variations on Voice—but really, the book is about so much more than that. The premise is the author’s inheritance: a stack of journals her mother left her. When the author discovers the journals are all blank, she takes the reader on a journey to get to the heart of what such a gift means. How do you interpret your mother’s voiceless past? Tempest weaves narratives on her development as a writer with the Utah landscape, marriage, and how we are all living with the voice of our ancestors.
I was left thinking about the responsibility of the writer as well—how we all have an obligation to our own landscape, and how our individual histories can reveal identity and inspire us.
When Women Were Birds almost defies genre. It’s written in short passages, almost vignettes, each one a small narrative on family, girlhood, marriage, or the landscape. In the second half of the book I found myself taking notes, copying favorite passages, and pondering over her many astonishing ideas and insights.
I loved that both of these writers went deep inside the mother-daughter relationship and explored those messy histories. That being said, these are not happy stories, they do not offer easy answers and simple resolutions. They are complicated stories. But what you’ll find in both books are writers exploring the evolving relationships between two women. The narrator in My Name is Lucy Barton finds fault with her own mother even as she’s glad she’s arrived to sit with her at the hospital, and we feel a deep pang of hurt when the mother chooses to leave the hospital when she does. As a reader, you come to see that the two women could not be more different, yet there are a few fascinating similarities. In When Women Were Birds, we see a more consistent mother-daughter relationship, even as we feel a sense of betrayal, along with the speaker, when she discovers her mother’s journals were left blank. The speaker’s narrative unspools from there, asking the reader to help make sense of a gift like this. After exploring the many ideas—the many possible reasons—for such a gift, you begin to see the sacrifices that were made along the way, how parenthood changes each woman. Williams writes, “I didn’t realize how young she was, but isn’t that the conceit of mothers—that we conceal our youth and exist only for our children?” I think this is right. I’ve thought the same thing in looking at early photographs of my own mother. Both books allow us to explore rich, storied pasts of mothers and daughters and the world of secrets that exist between them.
Tasha Cotter’s first full-length collection of poetry, Some Churches, was released in 2013 with Gold Wake Press. Her work has appeared in journals such as Contrary Magazine, NANO fiction, and Booth. A graduate of the University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Writers Studio, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she works in higher education. You can follow her on twitter @TashCotter.