Have you ever stolen apples from an orchard or milk from a farm because you were hungry? I have.
Have you ever watched your parents rummage through trash cans looking for their next meal? I have.
Have you ever attended a yoga camp in India or hiked the Pacific Crest Trail or trained a goshawk to hunt for you? I have.
I’ve done all of this by reading memoirs. Reading people’s stories allows us to live multiple lives. We also appreciate the personal relationship we have with the author. In “Angela’s Ashes,” my heart aches for the young boy, Frank McCourt, who must become the man of the household after his father leaves. His challenges as a poverty-stricken boy trying to survive on the streets of Ireland in the 30s become my experiences. When I read his memoir, I feel the shame and grief and hunger he felt. “The bus stops at the O’Connell Monument and Uncle Pat goes to the Monument Fish and Chip Café where the smells are so delicious my stomach beats with the hunger. He gets a shilling’s worth of fish and chips and my mouth is watering.”
Similarly, I suffered from hunger and cringed as I read Jeanette Walls,’ “The Glass Castle,” her memoir of growing up with a selfish mother and a dreamer of a father who claimed he’d build them a glass castle one day. When Jeanette describes how, as a three-year-old, her tutu caught fire while she was cooking hotdogs for the family in their trailer, it is my skin that is burning. Her mother rushes her to the hospital for skin grafts. Weeks later, her father “skedaddles” her out without paying. Jeannette’s life is one “skedaddle” after another, fleeing from bill collectors and sometimes having to live in their car.
Another memoir that schooled me on dysfunctional family life and paranoia was “Educated,” the powerfully told memoir by Tara Westover. Westover’s father had irrational fears about the government and wouldn’t allow his children to attend school or go to the doctor. Tara’s mother was a herbalist and midwife, with many odd remedies. When Tara’s brother began abusing her, she managed to leave home and attended Brigham Young University where she excelled, giving readers hope for her future. Readers realize the power of education since that was the key to her freedom.
Memoirs can be inspirational, as local author Jane Gage Govoni proves with her book “Faith, Love, and Hypnosis: An Inspirational Memoir of the Dance Between Stroke and Healing.” Jane describes how, after she suffered a stroke in 1998, a doctor told her she had lost a third of her brain and that there was no cure or treatment. She was told to go home and get her things in order. Her powerful story shows nothing is impossible. If you meet Jane at her Oxford yoga studio or around town, you’ll see she has boundless energy.
Wisconsin Dells’ resident and a member of my writing group, Shirley Tollaksen, is working on a compelling memoir featuring her mother’s life in Wisconsin during the depression. It includes the tragic death of Shirley’s father when she was two years old, and the challenges her mother faced as a young widow caring for 12 children. Reading it has not only taught me about life in that era, but has also given me an appreciation for the struggles many women had to go through back then.
If you’re ready for a new book, try a memoir. You could learn how to train a goshawk to hunt for you (Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk”) or hike the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strand’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”) By reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” you get to devour a scrumptious meal of pizza and gelato in Italy, attend yoga classes taught by a guru in India, and finish your adventure with a romantic romp in Bali. All simply by opening the pages of a memoir.