Review of Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall
July 27, 2015 § 4 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
“The assignment is to write what we’d like to be someday. One of the most regular questions of childhood, yet it seems I’ve never been asked it. Maybe because I’m one of seven children in a family headed by a woman without a husband or a career and we live in a neighborhood brimming with similar women, people who did not plan as children to wait tables or clean hotel rooms or stand on porches and corners, watching as the world passes.”
Reading Sonja Livingston deliberating the perennial childhood question—What do you want to be when you grow up?— in her new collection, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, I’m taken back to Mrs. Dowdy’s class. I’m ten years old, chewing my pencil, trying hard to picture myself setting out at sunrise, swinging a metal lunch pail, going I don’t know where. All the adults in my life labor with their hands, trudge home at night tired, sweaty, and miserable.
“You can do anything,” Livingston’s teacher urges her. “Don’t limit yourself.”
Mrs. Dowdy says more or less the same thing. I think of my father imploring me, “Go to school. Be something.” If I’m not to be a mother, farmer, seamstress, mechanic or upholsterer, then what will I be? My classmates write, but my hand remains rigid.
Livingston also stares at a blank page. Mr. Coyle coaxes, “Think of what you most enjoy.” She likes checking out books from the library and reading mysteries, travel stories, and myths. “And just like that,” she reflects, “I make up my mind about my career: mythologist.”
She’s proud and expects praise from her teacher. However, “Mr. Coyle does not touch my paper, does not lift it to the class, saying ‘Listen to this, boys and girls.’ He only returns his glasses to his face and says, Well, now, that’s a new one. He smiles, but the way he says it, his surprise—Well, now—tells me that mythologist is no kind of career.” Embarrassed, Livingston places her hand over her dream career and listens while classmates boast of becoming fashion models, astronauts, or the next Michael Jackson. “Their goals sound impossible, but must be correct because they include no job anyone I know has ever done.”
Maybe Mr. Coyle can’t imagine a career in writing myths, yet Livingston grows up to be a fine storyteller (and isn’t that what a mythologist is?). She possesses keen ability to magnify small moments and shape their telling, weaving in unlikely images that connect cleverly and underscore the quirkiness of real life. For instance, she contrasts Mr. Coyle’s formal classroom with the fun class next door taught by a Hawaiian-obsessed teacher who grows a flowering hibiscus in the classroom and teaches girls to hulu dance.
Livingston’s essay collection revolves around the lives of women, be they French nuns whose chants of the rosary hum across the radio or the buckskin and beaded belt maiden who graces the Land of Lakes butter box or Livingston herself, a woman so desperate to conceive a child, she undergoes painful fertility treatments that lead to further disappointment.
Her lyrical writing offers a fresh look at women growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, struggling to pull themselves above the poverty line. She collages period snippets and braids narratives that form rich layers with yet enough room for readers to wriggle in.
In Mrs. Dowdy’s classroom, she sees that I’m struggling and prompts, “Think of what you’re good at.” I love to read, and I’d just won an award for a citizenship speech I’d written. My hand scrawls: writer.
I can’t remember Mrs. Dowdy’s reaction, though I distinctly recall my grandmother’s. She remained quiet for a moment, her tired eyes looking me over, then solemnly said, “Well, I didn’t know you had to go to college to learn to write.”
Her words stung, but in time I’d realize that a woman who’d spent her whole life struggling on farm, raising nine children, surely regarded my dream as frivolous, if not impossible.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and writing instructor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. She is the author of Against the Tide, and her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Art New England, and the anthology Dime Story.