I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell

This is not your average memoir. With stark self-awareness and insight, novelist Maggie O’Farrell throws us into the middle of her life through 17 essays about life-threatening and often harrowing events that define how she became who she is. She lightly weaves her biography throughout, giving us enough of a glimpse of her personal trajectory to understand as much as we need to know about how she got from point A to point B and why. But the book is primarily a sensory exploration of how it feels to be Maggie O’Farrell.

Much of what happens in O’Farrell’s life stems from a case of encephalitis when she was eight, the effects of which she shows throughout the book. But she waits until the penultimate chapter to explain the disease, trusting her reader to stay with her. She shows before she tells. It’s risky, but it works.

Because of encephalitis, her brain can’t accurately place her in her environment, so she often fights for physical balance, her muscles cannot provide enough strength for childbirth, she can stutter at book readings, and simply walking up to the stage at an event is a feat in itself.  

Her life sometimes defies belief, and she seems to take questionable risks, but she says being so ill so young changed her and made her embrace life with a passion few possess:

I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. When you’re a child, no one tells you that you are going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.

She has survived assaults that could have killed her—one of her attackers murdered another young woman shortly after he put his camera strap menacingly around O’Farrell’s throat. O’Farrell outwitted him by doing what she does with remarkable power: using her words.

Other brushes with death include three near-drownings, two more assaults, a child with deadly allergies, and multiple “missed miscarriages” in which the baby dies, but the mother has no symptoms of the loss. All this both forms and is a result of a personality that embraces risk, requires change, and is deeply introspective. In a relatively short book, O’Farrell shows how she was molded into a woman, a mother, and a writer of courage and intensity.

— Pat Prijatel

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

This novel is based on true events that actually boggle the mind of the modern reader. Georgia Tann was a prominent maven of Tennessee society who sought to better society through the adoption of poor, underprivileged children into wealthy socially-advantaged families. Operating during the distressed times of the 1930s Depression, she established the Tennessee Children’s Home Society which operated orphanages across Tennessee and Georgia. That good intention went badly awry, however, and many of the children who ended up in these orphanages were never actually given up for adoption by their birth families. Some were snatched up on their way home from school. Others were taken from parents who were conned into signing away their parental rights by promises that their children would be returned when the family could get back on their feet. When the parents tried to reclaim their children, adoptions had been finalized, names changed, and records sealed. All of that is true and it is a grisly story that continued for more than a decade.

Against this history, Wingate structures her novel in two voices. The voice of 12-year-old Rill in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939 alternates with that of Avery, a 30-something daughter of wealth and privilege in modern-day Aiken, South Carolina. Rill’s story moves us forward in time. Avery’s story ultimately unravels backward through the unsuspected secrets of her family,

Rill is the oldest of five children who were taken from their family’s vagabond houseboat on the Mississippi River when their father takes their mother to the hospital. Her story and the story of her siblings unfolds over a three-month period in alternating chapters of the book as Rill, rechristened May in the orphanage, fights to keep her sisters and brother with her.

In the interwoven story, Avery encounters a woman, May, in a nursing home who grabs her wrist and takes a bracelet that was given to Avery by her grandmother.  Avery’s grandmother is in the dementia unit of a different nursing home. As Avery retrieves her bracelet, she begins to talk with May and sees a photograph that looks suspiciously like one that her grandmother has. 

We see where this is going. And it does go there, at a fast tempo, and with some riveting scenes and phrases (such as fans trying to move humid summer air that has no desire to be moved). 

Our book club mostly enjoyed reading this book and it is indeed a good tale.  However, many thought the “Avery” story was too pat, too romance-novel-ish and used unnecessarily stereotyped characters, particularly Avery’s fiancé and the man who helps her unravel her family’s past. Our discussions of the book mostly centered around the character of Rill and her mighty efforts to save her siblings and their memories of their “real” parents; and around Georgia Tann, who died before she could be charged with the crimes she committed; and around our society’s changing views about adoption. The book did push us to consider what we might have done in the circumstances that confronted families in abject poverty during the Depression.  What might we have done to save our children? The scene where a father comes to the orphanage to reclaim his children and is told that they are already gone “to a better life,” is riveting. 

Review by Jeanie and Bill Smith

Sea of Glory, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Exploration! Adventure! See the world! The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 offered all that. With a task force of six sailing ships and 346 men, the Expedition discovered Antarctica, mapped much of the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest, and circled the globe. It returned with materials that formed the basis of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and sparked the formation of the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory. 

Why is this Expedition not ranked alongside Lewis and Clark in our history?  Nathaniel Philbrick, noted for histories of Washington, Custer, and the whaling ship Essex, takes on that question through a review of the journals and correspondence of the principal officers of the Expedition and other historical records. 

Those records revealed a corking tale of the inner turmoil of the commander of the Expedition, Charles Wilkes, and the resulting tension among the officers and crew.  Throughout the voyage, Philbrick traces the deteriorating relations between Wilkes and his officers, particularly William Reynolds, who started as an admirer of Wilkes and by 1842 was his adamant opponent. Wilkes was at once supremely self-confident and supremely insecure. This internal tension (Philbrick quotes Thoreau’s description of “the private sea”) was reflected in inconsistent and ineffective leadership of the Expedition’s officers and crew, unwarranted transfers, unnecessary and brutal floggings. 

Our group’s discussions kept coming back to Wilkes’s tragic character flaws. Was it arrogance and self-conceit? Yes, but the accomplishments of the Expedition deserved high regard. Would Wilkes have been better balanced and more tolerant if he had been given the recognition he thought was deserved? Melville is quoted: “All mortal greatness is but disease.” Could another commander have managed the personnel better? Maybe, but no senior officer of the Navy wanted to take this command. And maybe a more collaborative commander would not have achieved as much as Wilkes did. The title “Sea of Glory” comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII as Cardinal Wolsey laments his loss of office: “I have ventured . . . this many summers in a sea of glory, but far beyond my depth.” These are universal questions, but they are magnified by small ships, large oceans, and four years at sea. 

Ah, but the adventure. The Expedition brought together threads of scientific investigation, the commercial needs of traders and whalers, and the U.S. diplomatic expansion of the Jackson and Van Buren era. It visited Antarctica twice, once from the tip of South America, and a year later from Australia. The seamanship needed to take sailing vessels through the fog and ice of the high southern latitudes was a real adventure, which Philbrick tells skillfully. Between and after the Antarctic visits, the Expedition surveyed hundreds of Pacific Islands, had a hostile encounter with Fijians, climbed through the climate changes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii to make pendulum observations which would increase scientific understanding of the earth’s gravity, shape, and density. After completing that task, the Expedition moved to the Pacific Northwest, surveyed the coast from California to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, and entered the mouth of the Columbia River, traversing some of the most dangerous waters in the United States. 

The Expedition returned to the United States in 1842 to a Tyler administration whose interests had shifted to westward expansion, the annexation of Texas, and conflict with Mexico. In the naval culture of that time, after-action disputes were taken to courts martial. Wilkes, Reynolds, and three others were given suspensions and reprimands that gave no sense of vindication for anyone, and undercut the public image of the Expedition. Over the next few years, its scientific output gained greater appreciation as books, memoirs, and findings were written. But the public had moved on to other interests and the Expedition missed the moment of accolade that Wilkes and his crew had expected. But what an adventure they had.

— Bill Smith