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An American Childhood Paperback – Bargain Price, July 20, 1988
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Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a target. In this intoxicating account of her childhood, Dillard climbs back inside her 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old selves with apparent effortlessness. The voracious young Dillard embraces headlong one fascination after another--from drawing to rocks and bugs to the French symbolists. "Everywhere, things snagged me," she writes. "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." From her parents she inherited a love of language--her mother's speech was "an endlessly interesting, swerving path"--and the understanding that "you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself," not for anyone else's approval or desire. And one would be mistaken to call the energy Dillard exhibits in An American Childhood merely youthful; "still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day," she writes, "as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive."
"An American Childhood shimmers with the same rich detail, the same keen and often wry observations as her first book [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek]." -- -- Charlotte Observer
"A remarkable work...an exceptionally interesting account." -- --New York Times
"A vivid and thoughtful evocation of particular personal experiences that have an exuberantly timeless appeal." -- -- Chicago Sun-Times
"By turns wry, provocative and sometimes breathtaking...This is a work marked by exquisite insight." -- -- Boston Globe
"Every paragraph Dillard writes is full of information, presenting the mundane with inventive freshness and offering exotic surprises as dessert...[Annie Dillard] is one of nature's prize wonders herself--an example of sentient homo sapiens pushing the limits of the creative imagination. She deserves our close attentions." -- -- St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Loving and lyrical, nostalgic without being wistful, this is a book about the capacity for joy." -- -- Los Angeles Times
"The reader who can't find something to whoop about is not alive. An American Childhood is perhaps the best American autobiography since Russell Baker's Growing Up." -- -- Philadelphia Inquirer
"[An American Childhood] combines the child's sense of wonder with the adult's intelligence and is written in some of the finest prose that exists in contemporary America. It is a special sort of memoir that is entirely successful...This new book is [Annie Dillard's] best, a joyous ode to her own happy childhood." -- -- Newark Star-Ledger
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Non traditional in many ways, Dillard begins her work by claiming, "When everything else has gone from my brain...what will be left is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay." From this emerges a rich and generous history of Pittsburg, the landscape upon which Dillard's childhood is inscribed. She takes the reader on a journey through every rock she overturned with a popsicle stick in hopes of finding buried treasure, through the alleyways where childhood games were played with ferocity, to the hallowed halls of Junior League dances where children are manufactured to become the city's elite. Her personal history is so entwined with that of the city that they are artfully rendered one in the same.
Unlike other memoirs, An American Childhood flouts the traditional coming of age trope. Instead, Dillard focuses on awakening from the self absorption of early childhood and entrance into the greater world. In a sense, she chronicles the Lacanian moment of self awareness, and does so lyrically and deftly. However, such an exploration of inner experience necessitates the sacrifice of a clear narrative structure. This work is more of a meditation on childhood, rather than a straight forward account of her life.
For me, her work most resonates when she speaks of the importance of books and reading in forming her malleable psyche and material interactions with the world. In her words, "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." For Dillard, reading becomes a love "most requited" (according to Wetherell's Post review). It is the medium through which boundaries are shattered, hopes are realized, and escapes are planned.
In this memoir, Dillard's prowess as a poet shines through. Her lyrical recollections of the past seem as if they are memories from your own childhood. Even if you have not read any of her previous works, read An American Childhood in order to relive the innocence and wonder of your own youth.
One of the treats of Dillard's memoir is how she portrays the "interior life" or life of imagination of a small child, and how that very solipsistic world is gradually fragmented by and then integrated with the exterior world of other people, and of history and the passage of time. A mission of Dillard's as a girl was to experience as much as she could, as fully as she could, and then remember as much of it as she could. "How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? * * * Too little noticing, though--I would risk much to avoid this--and I would miss the whole show. I would wake on my deathbed and say, What was that?" So Dillard pushed herself to observe - and remember - all kinds of details. Such things as the skin on her mother's hands, people's faces, games of "capture the flag", throwing snowballs at cars, air raid drills with heads pressed against the walls and arms folded over heads, ballroom dancing with the awkward other-worldly boys, and the exploits of Roberto Clemente in right field. But, as Dillard remarks near the end of the book, the particulars are not important. "What is important is anyone's coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on."
AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD is the antithesis of - and an antidote for - those all-too-common contemporary memoirs of victimhood.