A Review of Debra Monroe’s My Unsentimental Education
December 3, 2015 § 3 Comments
By Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
Like Debra Monroe, I grew up in the ’70s with a scrapbook called My School Years. Each grade ended with a section called “When I Grow Up I Want to Be…” with occupations divided by gender. Boys had choices such as astronaut or basketball player; girls could choose between secretary or model. I remember feeling perplexed and ill-suited to every option, but I had to check a box. In kindergarten I went with “airline hostess.” First grade I checked “other” and wrote in “ballerina.” Second grade, I again checked “other” but wrote in “teacher” on the boys’ side. From third grade on it would appear I gave in to my fate, dutifully checking “school teacher” as a girl.
In My Unsentimental Education, Monroe writes that as a child faced with these divisions of labor, she didn’t yet comprehend lack of parity between the genders—though it’s implied she eventually will. Monroe spends her youth struggling between education and tradition, as her dueling binaries of “bookish self” and “homebody” foil her next evolution. From writing camp to tenured professor, from first kiss to adult relationship, she details her “slow shift in understanding what wooing and mating would be during a large-scale movement of women into the professions.”
Monroe and I both grew up during the last gasp of stenography (we learned it, then didn’t use it), and the new generation of single women who could legally obtain the pill. We attended colleges with many female students but encountered few female professors. We saw how women scholars would wind up as over-educated typists for their husband’s dissertations.
She consistently placed her career over the men in her life. Monroe is haunted by her bizarro self, the divorcée in the rural Midwest, used up by a dead-end job and a passel of ungrateful kids. Okay, so that life sounds terrible. Who would miss it? Yet Monroe somehow conveys survivor’s guilt combined with nostalgia for what she lost—a place to belong.
I’m not sure I buy the “unsentimental” aspect, for every time a love is lost or a moving truck packed, melancholy lingers. Perhaps the most poignant of these choices is the first, when she chooses college over her first love. She fumbles to return his class ring hanging around her neck while he sobs. Monroe has broken the silent covenant with her community in Spooner, Wisconsin, that young girls settle down and marry nice local boys. She confuses her mother. Her father warns that she’s educating herself out of the marriage market. Her future stepfather is more blatant: “high-on-your-horse, know-it-all-c***.”
In these moments and throughout, Monroe deploys wry language worthy of a former Flannery O’Connor Award winner as she morphs through various personas, changing costumes that she often sews herself:
Dorothy Parker—“I hated peyote. But mutual interests are the foundation of marriage.”
Judge Judy—“Don’t move in with someone unless you have first and last month’s rent, plus a deposit.”
Dear Sugar—“I didn’t know yet that love seesaws forever between regard for the other and wariness for the self.”
Late Night Bourbon Confessor—“It takes a special kind of courage to call off a wedding, and I didn’t have it.”
My Unsentimental Education is not The Notebook. The boyfriend at the beginning does not return with his class ring at the end, trying to patch things up. Thank God. Or at least, I was much happier wandering around Monroe’s complicated but truthful experience.
Monroe, in her My School Years scrapbook, also refused the prescribed boxes, checked “other,” and wrote in, “missionary”; however, the pious life wasn’t meant to be. The journey we take in life might be untidy, or as Monroe observes, “sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up.” The important thing, it seems, is that you go.
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson did–eventually–grow up to be a professor at Southern Utah University. She is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications.