Certain books give off the sense that you won’t want them to end, so splendid the writing, so lyrical the stories. Such is the case with Southern California novelist Susan Straight’s new memoir, “In the Country of Women.”
In the book, Straight tells the story of her Inland Empire hometown and its heat-laden terrain, masterfully blended with the stories of a profusion of ancestors, often women — tough, trauma-burdened women — who (somehow) make their way across the country, always headed west, from Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, the Colorado Rockies, even the Swiss Alps, to Riverside, Calif.,the town where she was born and still lives today.
Writing a love letter to her three grown daughters, Straight tells stories of her own childhood with her siblings and frugal, Dodger-loving, Swiss immigrant mother and weaves them together with tales of her ex-husband Dwayne Sims’ more populous and effusive African American family. She also alternates chapters with the disquieting tales of those California Dreamin’ women (and men) who “crossed thousands of miles of hardship,” so that they could meet up at a local Riverside park near a tree that she still passes by daily on her way to work.
Her vibrant pages are filled with people of churned-together blood culled from scattered immigrants and native peoples, indomitable women and their babies. Yet they never succumb. “The women who came before you, my daughters, were legends,” she writes. “Their flights lasted decades,” and the intimate detailed stories she relates show how “each trekked thousands of miles and countless rivers,” just like the ancestors of millions of Americans, fleeing violence, starvation and economic death.
Women such as Sims’ great-grandmother, Fine, bereft after her enslaved mother died when she was 6 or 7, her siblings likely taken as slaves, beaten routinely until she fled the violence of Tennessee’s Reconstruction. Or his maternal grandmother, Daisy, who survived her mother’s murder as she walked with her on a country road one night, then later fled Sunflower County, Miss.
There is Straight’s own paternal grandmother, Ruby, who drove a Model A Ford with five sisters from Illinois to Colorado and then fled repeatedly to Southern California; or Rosa, Straight’s maternal grandmother, “a woman from a Grimm’s fairy tale, a stern and tireless general who with no assistance kept my feckless grandfather and his children alive by leading them to Fontana, Calif.”
Straight says she and former husband Dwayne were a striking pair in the mid-‘70s, as she, the blond, small, self-confessed “book nerd,” palled around with the muscular 6-foot-5 basketball star. Soon after she meets his joyous family one Memorial Day, it’s his effervescent mother, Alberta Sims, who shepherds the young insecure woman into the family with, “Here she is! Come on inside and get you a plate,” and follows it with a lifetime of love and connection.
Even after their divorce, she and Dwayne remained connected; together they’d take their daughters to the beach and talk regularly. “We know countless ex-couples like us. Whether it’s because we can’t afford to move away after we divorce, or we’re too lazy to dislike each other efficiently and permanently, it seems to work.”
Despite our tendency to gaze to the future, with her words, Straight gives us permission to remember what went before with passion and attachment:
“There is nothing wrong with still loving the past, the way it looked and felt and smelled and sounded,” she writes halfway through the beautiful book. “The tenderness with which some images stay with us cannot be lost. No matter what.”
At the recent funeral of her daughters’ 20-year-old cousin, she reflects on loss, reading these words: “Tonight, I walk. I am watching the sky.” Straight quotes from a work by Oklahoma and Colorado Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan. “I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of the stars in the sky. Listening to what speaks in the blood. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
And, she writes, we are all the result of indomitable women who survive, thrive and soldier onward. “There is no other country I’d ever want to live in but this one. This country of women.”
“In the Country of Women”
Catapult: 384 pp., $26
Kinosian is the author of “The Well-Rested Woman.”