Returning home is a notion inherent to almost any childhood memoir. It might be the return to a physical home, a family dwelling. It might be an emotional return, a revisiting of the people and events that shaped one's life during formative years (for better and for worse). Home, in this sense, becomes the point of emotional origin, one that might—in the hands of a good writer—smolder with narrative energy and revelatory insight. Ruth McLaughlin is one such good writer. In her haunting new memoir, Bound Like Grass, she revisits both kinds of homes—sort of.
In the spring of 2001, McLaughlin made the six-hour trip from Great Falls to her family's old farm near Culbertson, Mont., a hamlet of just over 700 residents near the North Dakota state line. When she arrived, her family home—abandoned for some years—was no longer there. The new owner, who lived miles away, burned the house to the ground, presumably to keep out squatters. She knew of the house's burning (indeed, it was her reason for the trip), nevertheless McLaughlin is reasonably "shocked at how complete the fire [had] been." As she makes her way through the field with which her family "had a ninety-seven-year fling" she comes to the spot where the small white house once stood; now "an irregular small field is outlined by the foundation's concrete scar, and I revisit rooms in memory."
Throughout ensuing chapters, McLaughlin describes her childhood on the farm with a gentle fearlessness. Gradually, she reveals a frustration at her family's isolation, not simply due to the remoteness of the family's homestead, but because her parents stressed an isolated existence. Born to the homesteading life during the Depression era, McLaughlin's parents were woe to waste a dime. It is with affection that Ruth Ann (as her family called her) describes her mother's "thin yet delicious" pancakes (Mom cut the Bisquick mix with plain flour to make it last longer); it is with anger she describes how her parents were reluctant to do more for her two sisters, one with severe emotional handicaps and the other with Down syndrome. When Rosemary, Ruth Ann's older sister who suffered from explosive outbursts and a crippling inability to interact with much of the rest of the world, was sent to a mental institution in Minnesota the family never sent her gifts ("considered frivolous, like praise"); nor did they visit, even once. McLaughlin writes, "Now I imagine other patients' families did. Right under Rosemary's nose other inmates received packages in the mail. Other families made the effort to visit. Our family managed to make Rosemary second-class even in an institution."
In the memoir's prologue, the point is made that, unlike other homesteading memoirs, McLaughlin's is two generations beyond the original homesteaders, her grandparents (who began farming the land not long after the turn of the century). Her grandparents' homesteads were, for the most part, financial failures and it was the author's parents who first began to make money—however little—through farming. The memoir is refreshingly distinct in other ways: McLaughlin doesn't romanticize rural life. Certainly there is joy, as when the family enjoys her mother's inventive desserts, but there are reasons she escaped her family's "destiny" at a young age. However many misgivings she might have about her parents and their choices, McLaughlin doesn't stoop to criminalizing them, as many childhood memoirs do. When she tries to imagine why neither one of her parents accompanied Rosemary on her long, solitary train ride to Minnesota, never to return home, McLaughlin probes—she does not accuse.
Had she been more accusatory, perhaps we would have lost the moments when she turns the probe inward. It's hard not to be struck by her fearlessness when she describes how, as a child, she slapped her sister Ginny, who suffered from Down syndrome, for pronouncing 'milk' as 'yum.' Even more forthcoming is when she describes recovering Ginny's death certificate as an adult. When the clerk at the Custer County Courthouse remarked on how young her sister had been at her death (Ginny died at 27), the adult McLaughlin remarked, "Oh, it's okay, it's fine...She was Down syndrome," before collapsing on the steps outside and weeping.
There are few nits to pick with Grass. Among them are the opening two sections of the book, where the prose is sometimes awkward in its attempt to be evocative. This is a small price to pay though. Once anchored securely to her narrative, McLaughlin's prose is effortless and lyrical; her storytelling, near perfect.
The scope of Bound Like Grass—a 1950s childhood in rural Montana—may seem narrow, but its insights are universal. In some way or another, we all return home and though houses may burn to the ground, the spirit of home—with all its lingering questions and lasting memories—remain.
"I return on trips," she writes, "and in my dreams to a lonely corner of Montana because it is a source. It's an origin of my tendency toward isolation...but I am also entangled with the hope of this place."
McLaughlin entangles, or rather draws us in, to the lonely corner she and her forebears once called home. And there we find hope, too.
Ruth McLaughlin reads from Bound Like Grass at Fact & Fiction Thursday, March 31, at 7 PM. Free.