A Review of Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last

September 20, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Sarah White

As a memoirist who most often chooses the brief essay form, I’ve wondered how my personal essays might hang together as a collection. For that reason, I was drawn to Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last. Having discovered, earlier this year, her 2019 book Late Migrations, I welcomed the chance to spend more time with her closely observed, intensely humane, and always brief writing.

Renkl was offered a monthly New York Times op-ed column about “the flora, fauna, politics and culture of the American South”—a dream job for any essayist. These columns were published between 2018 and 2020, and that period from mid-Trump-reign to full-on pandemic inflects in nearly every one.

Renkl considered organizing principles for the collection such as chronology (strict or loose) and grouping by approach before settling on “a kind of patchwork quilt, the art form of my maternal ancestors.” Oh, those ancestors! As in Late Migrations, they leap off the pages here. In “Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings,” about stage fright during her book tour for Late Migrations, Renkl writes, “…I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.” In “Remembrance of Recipes Past,” she slew me with, “For me it is always both heartbreaking and comforting to open my mother’s recipe box on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (My mother was no cook.) If you loved Renkl’s writing about nature and family in Late Migrations, the sections of Graceland, At Last grouped under Flora & Fauna, Environment, and Family & Community will delight you.

Graceland, At Last could easily be used as a text for teaching journalism. The essays in the sections on Politics, Social Justice, and Arts & Culture are exemplary—reviews of concerts and museum openings, op-eds that touch on the complications of life in Tennessee as “a red-state liberal,” argument essays against issues like the death penalty and unrestrained gentrification. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like, but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do,” she writes in “An Act of Mercy in Tennessee,” about clemency granted to a sixteen-year-old who killed her pimp. As a journalist, she practices Appreciative Inquiry—finding and covering the good going on in the world. Her journalism is always cogent but blended with personal reflection that ties public events to her singular, sensitive soul.

And how I love Renkl’s gift for language! From the introduction: “To love a person is always to love in spite of the faults that intimacy reveals, and so it is with a place. To love the South is to see with clear eyes both its terrible darkness and its dazzling light, and to spend a lifetime trying to make sense of both.” From ”The Flower that Came Back from the Dead,” about preserving the Tennessee coneflower from extinction: “There’s a great danger in hope, as Roxane Gay has pointed out: ‘Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others….’” From “The Misunderstood, Maligned Rattlesnake”: “I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that the peaceable kingdom is anything but. All day long and all night long, too, … every creature … is both trying to eat and trying not to be eaten.” 

Renkl is so likable, as a writer and an individual, with her rich family traditions, her concern for justice, and her observant and unsentimental love of nature, that every paragraph feels like a conversation with a friend.

One quibble, unavoidable since all these essays appeared as New York Times columns: the word count of each is nearly identical. The book is better taken in brief dips rather than sustained reading, where the lack of variety in pacing starts to annoy. At some point, I started to long for a sense of a larger narrative. There is none, but the juxtapositions created by Renkl’s selection and ordering of these more than sixty columns is thought-provoking. The book is full of gifts for the reader but even more for anyone who, like Renkl and me, enjoys writing in the essay form.

Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Typical projects include books, articles, and life histories. She also teaches memoir writing through small-group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

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