In The Country of Women by Susan Straight
A moving family saga celebrates generations of bold, brave, and determined women.
Award-winning novelist Straight (Between Heaven and Here, 2012, etc.) makes her nonfiction debut with an eloquent, absorbing memoir. Addressed to her three adult daughters, the narrative weaves together stories that transcend time, place, race, and ethnicity to vibrantly portray her children’s rich ancestry. Straight is white: Her mother grew up in the Swiss Alps; her father, in Colorado. The couple settled in Riverside, California, a hardscrabble community of a wide variety of mixed ethnicities, all “dreamers of the golden dream.” When she was 14, she met Dwayne Sims, an African American high school classmate; years later, they married and eventually settled near their families. Straight taught English to refugees and at a city college; Dwayne worked at a juvenile correctional facility. Frugality was a way of life. When her youngest daughter was asked how the family fared, she replied, “Wait—what’s below humble?” They had been poor, Straight admits, finding furniture on the street and living without air conditioning in temperatures over 100 degrees, but “the safety and tether and history” of their families was ample compensation. “The women who came before you, my daughters, were legends,” writes the author, and their journeys—from Africa, Europe, and across the American continent—entailed convoluted “maps and threads” that culminated in her own girls, “the apex of the dream.” Her daughters inherited not only their ancestors’ “defined cheekbones and dimples and high-set hips,” but, more crucially, their beauty, intelligence, and defiant independence. Among those many women, Dwayne’s mother, Alberta, shines: “bemused and regal and slightly mischievous,” a warmhearted woman who unreservedly welcomed her white daughter-in-law. Listening to family stories and mining ancestry.com, Straight recounts the peril and hope, forced migration and fierce escapes, “thousands of miles of hardship,” that women endured. “All of American history,” she tells her daughters, “is in your bones.”
A radiant memoir imbued with palpable love.