Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Still Life With Chickens

by Catherine Goldhammer

A memoir of her post-divorce transition with her daughter from a "McMansion" to a cottage by the sea, Goldhammer's diminutive volume is a very quick read. 

 It's an oft-heard story--a divorce, the need for rebirth, healing and rediscovery following a life crisis. There are probably dozens of books already in print with this theme, but the author distinguishes her journey with the story of her daughter's desire (and her collaboration with that wish) to raise chickens.

Even as her marriage is ending, Goldhammer agrees to allow her intelligent and precocious daughter--and newly hatched chicken expert--to select a clutch of chicks and begin life as a chicken farmer.  Although she realizes that her former house must be sold soon, she goes forward with the chicken project, finds a simple rural cottage (in much need of renovation) and sets out to make that rural house a new home.  And with lots of work and the support of her friends, Goldhammer succeeds.

I don't know whether I had heard of the memoir before picking it up, or whether the jacket's promises of insights "quietly profound," with "transcendent wisdom" and the story of a life moved from "chaos to grace" drew me in, but I clearly expected too much.  It's such a small book, with unfortunately similar lack of depth. At the outset there's a mention of the author not having a year to spend abroad (a la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love) and of course that difference is apparent.  But even though she didn't have a year to travel, her memoir could have taught us much with an introspective turn.  After reading her book, I still wished for the "transcendent wisdom" and profound insight promised by the cover.

Goldhammer tells us highlights of the story of how she found her rural cottage and made it into a house they could live in, but where's the love?  We hear about how she treks to the store late at night for her daughter's forgotten toothbrush, but where's the lesson?  What did she feel?  How did that experience change her?

From this perspective, helping her daughter raise chickens may just have been a distraction.  The chicks needed warmth, a little pen, a larger pen...these needs were all immediate at the time.  The author stepped up and became the caretaker, the carpenter, the farmer.  She grew to each new demand.  Did the chickens pull them forward to a new life after divorce, or is life just what happens as the distractions move us beyond the worst bits?

Even as a chicken dies, she writes of sadness but the depth is just not there.  Perhaps the emotional foundation was edited out of this brief work, but regardless, there was none of the personal exposition, the openness, the "lessons learned" promised at the outset.  Although I read expecting to find words of wisdom and looking for the profound, and I sensed that the author's journey surely yielded much insight, I was sorely disappointed that she didn't share it with her readers.

It is possible that I missed it, but I was looking.  It is possible that her editors decided that the story should be light and readable--not mired in emotional heaviness.  However, depth sometimes requires that type of self-exploration.  Heaviness sometimes yields insight and release.   I feel sure that the author experienced misery, stark emotions and despair in this process.  A memoir without this level of depth just seems shallow and empty.  To seek transcendent wisdom and profundity is one thing, but to share it with us, dear reader, is wholly another.

My recommendation: although short, it does not fulfill its promises.  Easy to read, but not recommended for depth or insight.

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