Review of Debra Di Blasi’s Selling the Farm
January 8, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Curtis
“It’s one of our great tragedies of contemporary life in America, that families fall apart,” the playwright Sam Shepard once said. “Almost everybody has that in common.” I kept thinking of Shepard’s quote while reading Debra Di Blasi’s memoir (if that’s the right word) Selling the Farm: Descants From a Recollected Past (C & R Press, 2020). Written in a series of lyrical vignettes, the book is an elegy to the wild Missouri farm where Di Blasi grew up and to the complicated family who bore witness to it.
In Di Blasi’s hands, memoir is not a work of confession. As she writes in the prologue, she views autobiography as pretense—observing the past inevitably alters it, and any memoir that fails to recognize this fact is fiction. She calls attention to her self-editing through white space, indented text that often breaks the fourth wall. As Di Blasi explained in an interview about the book, “The intent is not only to illuminate the many facets of remembering but also to reflect the process of writing and revising one’s recollections, exposing the fallibility of memory and the intrusion of self-aggrandizement.”
Instead of autobiography, she categorizes Selling the Farm as “a biography of a place I happened to intersect.” In this place-based biography, narrative takes a backseat to lyricism. Animals occupy as much space (if not more) as humans, and human conflict reveals itself in brief, nightmarish flashes. Her parents fight. Her father rages. The family lives in squalor. Her mother tries to overdose on aspirin. A sister dies from cancer caused by chemicals in the groundwater. A mysterious fire consumes her childhood farmhouse.
Yet there is light amidst the darkness. Though Di Blasi and her four siblings lack the conventional comforts of indoor plumbing and happy parents, they are rich in immaterial gifts, in “a kind of wealth high beyond the flat innertubes and broken dolls of childhood.” The book is a kind of extended meditation on the wonder of childhood, a phase unburdened by memory, when time is experienced “head-on.” This is not to say the book romanticizes childhood. The siblings wreak havoc on their natural world like small, vengeful gods, pulling wings off grasshoppers and shooting frogs to placate their boredom. They were, she admits, “terrible.”
But the country cruelties are outnumbered by moments of staggering awe. Marrying prose and poetry, Selling the Farm is the kind of book you want to read with a pen on your lap, to mark its slippery metaphors and juxtapositions. Earth is “licked clean of time,” algae “resembles metallic threads loomed for a queen,” coyotes “come nosing the night’s lost virginity.” In one of my favorite vignettes, Di Blasi recalls the sensory thrill of being the first to lay boot tracks in a snowy field. “I’d reach the stand of black-skinned elms with iced branches clicking like graceless castanets. Turn in the blue knives of shadow. See where I’d been. The past, I saw, would dissolve in the heat of each moment, each step of the way.” It speaks to Di Blasi’s skills as a writer that she’s able to turn this ordinary event—stomping through fresh snow—into a transcendent statement on time’s impermanence.
The book advances seasonally, beginning with autumn and ending with spring. To end with a season of rebirth hints at hope; instead, Selling the Farm ends with the death of Di Blasi’s sister. This is a book, after all, about grief—grief for a sister, for a family torn asunder, and for a farm lost forever.
Or is it? “Do the trees remember us?” Di Blasi asks near the end. “I choose to believe that somewhere inside a sweet wet ring of uncut tree trunk’s an unchanged piece of who we ever were.” The sun melts our boot prints. The house burns down, or is sold. Our families age, and yes, as Sam Shepard noted, they fall apart. But certain places in our lives are so influential they never leave us, and perhaps we never leave them.
Like Di Blasi, I was raised on a rural cattle farm by parents who didn’t always get along like the smiling sitcom families I envied. My childhood farm was smaller, and less hardscrabble, than Di Blasi’s, but I saw myself in her story. Like her family, my parents sold the farm years ago. Today when I visit them, I sometimes ask my father to drive me back there.
That’s it? I think, looking out the car window at a vista of baled hay and rolling hills—pretty terrain, if common. In my memory, the farm is a cathedral of green, shaded by towering oaks that know my name. Such is the reverb of “memory’s echo,” as Di Blasi calls it. I found myself wishing she had returned to her old farm in person to make a similar assessment, but maybe it’s for the best we leave these landscapes in our mind, congealed like the tree branches inside a snow globe, shaken but sealed in the moment before our childhoods rise in flames, or evaporate in smoke.
Sarah Curtis is a writer in Michigan. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, Salon, the American Literary Review, and the anthology River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at sarahcurtiswriter.com.