Review of Abby Hagler’s There Was Nothing Left But Gold
October 8, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Hannah White
I was a quiet girl. I grew up in an all-girl home. In the spaces between my mother’s failed boyfriends and marriages, it was just my mother, my sister, and me, together in a home too large for just us. My mother loved silence, especially in the morning, when our voices carried easily through the emptiness of the house. Excitement was greeted with hushes, with demands to walk lightly. I made myself like a little ghost and she loved me for it.
But I must admit: I love quiet too. In it I find space, room for thinking, for reading and writing, room for loving myself like I always wanted someone else to.
Similarly, Abby Hagler finds space of her own as she revisits the rolling Nebraska grasslands of her home in There Was Nothing Left But Gold. After severing communication with her mother, Hagler heads toward her childhood home and stops in the prairie lands that inspired Willa Cather’s fiction. Weaving together personal and travel narrative, literary criticism, and ghost theory, in her lyric essays Hagler demonstrates an awareness of self, of how identity is inherited—or willed by parents onto their children—and of how memory is strongly tied to place.
Hagler identifies with Cather, who she says, “sought to escape the myth her mother had created for her.” Hagler herself a rebellious child who resisted the life her mother strained to raise her into—one of marriage, of being settled in one place—asks the question, “What becomes of the woman who lives the story her mother tells?”
Entering the prairie that is the setting of O Pioneers!, after being away from the grasses of her homeland for years, Hagler is left speechless. The life of the prairie moves around her, grass constantly growing and dying and growing again. She writes, “Grass resists assimilation. It grows against language because we cannot own it.” Hagler deftly puts into words what it feels like to simultaneously belong to a place—whether a landscape or a mother—without being owned by it.
Coming back to the prairie of her childhood, now an adult, Hagler feels she is now haunting the landscape that raised her. She revisits once familiar places—gas stations and fields—attesting to them that she still exists. But she asks herself, “Can I be nostalgic for a home where I no longer belong?” Though pulled to the memories of her childhood home, Hagler is struck by the continuity of the once familiar places around her despite her absence. Hagler provokes her readers with questions of the importance of place, identity, and inheritance.
Hagler’s mother sends her a lock of her baby hair, telling her she is in charge of her own relics. Because she lacks a house, family members resist giving Hagler family heirlooms, instead sending photocopies of pictures and documents of family history, “writing and being educated do not count as stability. One must display a physical immovability in order to keep time.” But Hagler makes readers question: Can one over truly leave home behind?
Though pulled to the lands of her home, where seeds in the prairie grass wedge themselves between fibers of clothing, holding on even through the wash, where blades of grass sprout out, each blade origin unknown and maybe even far from where it springs, Hagler imagines a willing revisiting of home, a sort of reverence for the past that does not compromise the personal choice of tomorrow.
Quiet is my mother, but it is me too.
Hannah White is a writer and graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She copyedits for the Journal of International Women’s Studies and writes for Literarytraveler.com. In her free time, she enjoys baking and walking through the woods of her hometown’s state park with her two Boston terriers.