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Trespasses: A Memoir (Sightline Books) Paperback – March 15, 2012
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Trespasses is a meditation on memory, identity, and place - specifically the rural Midwest. The volume is a collection of 80 short pieces of prose, including history, memoir, prose-poems, historical fiction, sociology, liturgy, etymology, jokes, ethnography, criticism and mythology. If The House on Mango Street took place in Missouri, this book would be it (or very close).
The book sets out with Lacy, pregnant with her first child (a girl) returning to her childhood home of Macon, Missouri, to better make peace with her past. Through a series of interviews with her family and research in the local genealogical library, Lacy constructs a mosaic of the place she chose to leave behind, weaving together the stories of her parents and grandparents as well as her own memories of Missouri. What emerges is a complex, and at times contradictory, portrait of a community and its conflicts over poverty, gender, class, race, and religion.
Ultimately, Trespasses is an exercise in subversion. As a young girl from a background of poverty, with intelligence and ambition and a penchant for questioning the established order of things, Lacy couldn't remain in her home or her hometown: "Growing up in this town, for me, was like learning to breathe underwater." Her high school chemistry teacher delivers his prognosis for her, shortly before she is suspended: "Won't amount to anything. Barefoot and pregnant. Poor white trash."
She returns a decade later, at the conclusion of her doctoral studies in literature and creative writing, to make sense of the injustice and violence and small-mindedness of a place that she simultaneously is compelled to love and defend: "I have an argument with a New Yorker. `The problem with midwesterners,' he tells me, `is that you have no culture.' He has come to this conclusion after having driven through the Midwest at some point in the past. His scalp shines through his hair in the patio light, which glints off the glasses he wears pushed far up on his nose. `Applebee's,' he says, crossing his legs at the knees, `is not culture.'" But after reading Trespasses, it's hard to see the experiences of the Missourians described as any less valid or urgent than those of urban, coastal Americans.
After gracefully undermining both the Midwestern notions of class and gender roles and the cultural elite's stereotypes of rural America, the author then turns her attention to traditions regarding what constitutes "art" and "literature," using her own life and work as a case study. She describes her high school encounters with poetry: "these poems are so far removed from my own language, my own experience, I feel small and stupid and poor." Years later, after infiltrating the academic establishment by adopting their discourse, she wonders: "What passes as poetry? What passes as nonfiction? Where is the border between verse and prose, fact and fiction? Who has drawn it? Who polices it? And according to what aesthetic?" And by challenging those very conceptions of "legitimate" art, she creates opportunities for individuals to take on new identities. The author describes the interview in which her grandmother, who painted portraits of the people and landscapes of the country in Trespasses, and what that act of creation meant to her: "'It's been a blessing to me,' she tells me earnestly. `It gave me a personality - I'd always been my parents' daughter, my brother's sister, Arthur's wife, the kids' mom. Painting made me Wilda the artist." And it's hard not to feel your heart snag on everything Johnson has to say about class and gender in the Midwest, when she describes her mother, a lifelong crafter who sewed her own wedding dress: "These days, she spends most of her time making bears - intricately crafted collectors' items she sells at trade shows across the country, through her website, on eBay. `I've sent my bears to London, Australia, Hong Kong,' she tells me as I thumb through a stack of beading magazines on the floor beneath her sewing table. `Places I'll never see," she says, a little absently. `Can't hardly imagine.'"
The language in this work is fresh and honest, and makes me half-consider taking my next vacation to a Midwestern farm: "You wash up at the water pump while the bird dogs yap from their pens and when nobody's looking you lie down in the long uncut grass behind the barn, where you can close your eyes and spread your whole body out under the sky's blue curve." The author describes the "margarine vinyl seats" of the town's gossipy beauty salon, where her grandmother, the "child of a hot-headed woman and a hard-handed man" and a woman with a "fly-catching voice" would visit each week. The image of her grandfather's silent tears as his failed farm is auctioned off in 1955: "clean wet tracks plowing through the fields of dust and dirt." Scenes of farm life that make me nostalgic, without even having experienced them myself: "a litter of kittens curled together like cooked beans in an empty barrel," and "the chickens hunched and tucked or drawn into themselves, their snores such an affable puttering [...] and the eggs, warm and solid in his hands."
Although Trespasses is labeled as "a memoir," I think it's really one of those genre-defying experiments that we don't have a word for yet. In the meantime, I will say that it is a love letter, to the author's daughter about her heritage and her birthright, and to the reader, if she has ever felt that there were roles and places off-limits to her.
Read this book if:
* You're a fan of Sandra Cisneros or Jeannette Walls
* You want to know what it means to be "Middle America" (though you still won't understand it all by the end of the book, but you'll be okay with that)
* You're a writer looking for a mentor text on "beyond genre"
* You're a writer looking for a mentor text that self-consciously considers the act of remembering
This book may not be for you if:
* You're looking for a beach read, or you're bothered by non-traditional structures and genres
* You're the author of a couple of self-published e-books with covers designed in the 1997 edition of Microsoft Paint and a chip on your shoulder
The concept behind this book is excellent. The execution is discombobulated with a few gems at best, off-putting to the reader at worst.
I think what is most difficult about this book as a reader is that we jump around through time and situations with no guidance. Then there's the narration style. It jumps from "you are so and so" to third person to first person past to first person present without any real rhyme or reason.
The absolute strength of the work is when Lacy puts down her story-telling mantel and simply talks about the history of the terms "white trash, cracker," what it is to grow up white trash, what it is to change class setting from poor to academic. These were interesting and relatable.
Overall although the concept of this memoir is strong and unique, the method of time-jumping vignettes and constantly changing narration styles make for a confusing read. I would recommend you browse a copy in a library or a bookstore if you are interested in the author's writing style or one or two particular vignettes, but not venture beyond that.