richardgilbert.me
The wiser narrator - Richard Gilbert
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith, one of my favorite memoirs. I reviewed it four years ago, and this semester I’m teaching it to a class of honors freshmen students under a coming-of-age memoirs theme. At the time of my review, one of the story’s most striking aspects to me was its scenic quality. I wrote, “There isn’t much authorial distance: narrated by a bereft girl, with scant mature perspective, the story has a poignant immediacy.” How I disagree now with my (slightly) younger self! Though Smith is a scenic and subtle writer whose story breathes on the page, and is deeply embedded in her teenage life, there’s no pretense that a high school girl wrote this. Smith’s voice palpably changes at times (as when she fills us in on her parents’ early lives), and there are even more overt cues, including the standby “writer-at-her-desk now” move, “I remember.” Why did I not see this? I suppose I got lost in the story, plus at the time I was trying to enhance the scenic quality of my own Shepherd: A Memoir. One’s response to a book is, to a large degree, a selfie. You, now. Which is why and how I learned not to teach certain great memoirs to undergraduates. They have to find a book’s characters relatable. Maybe one of the few advantages of age is that we can relate to a wider swath of humanity.