As I write, a strong west wind, the blown-out remnant of a chinook, warms the winter plains, and I’ve just finished reading the book, “A Strong West Wind,” by Gail Caldwell. The book looks back at Caldwell’s girlhood on the southern plains, West Texas. Since 1985 she has been the chief book critic for the Boston Globe; in 2001 she won the Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism.
Critics of books don’t necessarily write good ones, and the reviews on this one are mixed. What do you say about a Baby Boomer who writes, “Innocence is a state perceived only after it is gone; and mine now seems a mirror image of the nation itself-or at least of the dominant culture, playing its indolent game of lawn tennis across a darkening sky.” I mean, you can’t parody that kind of writing.
A plainsperson, too, may wince at the sort of standardized Great-American-Desert description Caldwell dishes up. On acquiring a driver’s license in Amarillo, she writes, “it seemed like a mockery, as though my mobility had opened up the horizon, only to underscore the emptiness of its plains.”
Reading on, we find that Strong West Wind is a certain type of book, the grasslands-girl-leaving-home memoir. The maker of the mold for this type of book is Jill Ker Conway, whose memoir, “The Road from Coorain,” begins in western New South Wales and ends with her going on to a distinguished academic career in America.
Closer to home, I think of Ceil Cleveland’s “Whatever Happened to Jacy Farrow.” Cleveland is Jacy Farrow, the flirt from Larry McMurtry’s novel (and after that a motion picture), “The Last Picture Show.” To the north, Debra Marquart offers “Horizontal World,” her story of “growing up in the middle of nowhere,” meaning the German-Russian country of North Dakota, and of course, leaving. Although, none of these women ever completely leaves.
Caldwell and the others all have to deal with leaving the home place behind. They all, too, deal with matters of gender. Every one of them struggles to overcome male authority over her life. I might add, too, that there is another element of gender relations present in all their stories, which has to do with beauty, beauty pageants, modeling, or just generally being alluring to men and being aware of it. It is perhaps incorrect, and certainly ungentlemanly, to note this, but there it is.
What Caldwell does better than the others in “Strong West Wind” is dwell upon that other common theme, relations across generations. She writes most about her father, and also much about her mother, but the fundamental love-hate conflict is with her father, and it centers on the war in Vietnam. “We were the kids of patriotic veterans,” she writes, “we were safe in the suburbs, or so we believed, we were wrapped in the flag long before we set it on fire.” Caldwell was an active anti-war protester and much involved in the leftist-youth scene in Austin.
I wish she would give more attention to aspects of life in her generation that were not so overtly political. For instance, she had polio as a child, and she knows how deeply that disease affected her generation, but doesn’t bring much insight to the subject.
Reflecting back on the story, I think a friendly critic reading the manuscript prior to publication might have told Caldwell that she comes across as too smart. She has her parents and family all figured out in ways that suit her construction of herself. That, too, may be a mark of my own generation on the plains, and not a pretty one.