Susan Straight’s memoir “In the Country of Women” is at its core an extended letter to her three daughters, Gaila, Delphine and Rosette Sims. This book, Straight writes, will be about the generations of women — from both Straight’s and their father Dwayne Sims’s sides — who have made their lives possible. These women are “from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers.” As Straight examines their lives, a complex, multiracial and multicultural lineage unravels. Through these family stories, Straight also adeptly exposes the complicated realities of American history.
Strikingly, the memoir is as much about place and belonging as it is about family. For great-great-grandmother Fine Kemp, born in a former slave cabin and forcibly taken by a white family, Straight ends the chapter with: “McMinnville to Nashville, Tennessee, to Denton, Texas: 714 miles, not counting the miles walked from the woodpile and the well to the house of the woman who beat her, or the miles walked in the forest picking blackberries and selling them in pails along the road.” Through rich descriptions and careful research, Straight so vividly captures Fine’s long and difficult life, we feel the exhaustion in our bones.
“In the Country of Women” is not only about the people of the past, but of those still living as well. In lucid prose, Straight weaves in stories of her childhood in Riverside, Calif., where she still lives. In an ode to this hardscrabble and diverse city, Straight recounts growing up alongside immigrants from Japan, the Philippines and Mexico, as well as transplants from Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere. This place is where Straight developed her understanding of family. Later, in her adult years, Straight uses the Pakistani term “biraderi” to define family as more than kin and blood, to encompass a wider community of neighbors, cousins and friends. A clan.
Straight, whose novel “Highwire Moon” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, is an effusive writer. Her descriptions of raucous parties in neighborhood driveways, of plentiful meals of dirty yellow saffron rice and “collards with softened ham hock floating amid the tangled ribbons of green” create a lush reading experience. The voice here is intelligent and warm, loving and honest, respectful and unafraid to directly confront the complex reality of being a white woman writing about marginalized people of color.
The weakness of “In the Country of Women” is its structure. Early chapters are devoted to the women of this vast and varied family, but then the focus loosens, jumping from topic to topic. In one chapter, Straight recounts how she learned to care for her daughters’ hair. In another, she describes the Batmobile, the car Dwayne drove in high school. These anecdotes are vivid and entertaining. Yet without a logical order, the book at times feels messy and unwieldy, weighed down by too many subjects. At best, we are reminded that the first and true audience are Straight’s daughters. We are only being welcomed into the biraderi for these 359 pages.
What a welcome it is. Straight’s skillful ability to take us from the intimacy of family history to the wider considerations of America’s legacy is a wonder. This is not only a story of women, but of immigration, police brutality and the history of slavery. By describing the fear Straight felt for Dwayne when they were confronted by policemen in Los Angeles, or her mother’s hardships as an immigrant from Switzerland, Straight captures an American story in all its ugly complexity. The terrors of the past are relevant now, including the difficulties of being a woman, how vigilantly we must protect our bodies. In one passage, Straight writes, “My girlfriends and I, along with every other girl we knew, had been hunted for years. I had survived torn clothes, hands that bruised, violating fingers, pinching and twisting of body parts, random bites inflicted by older teen boys, my hair pulled and throat exposed.”
What has changed? Have we as a country and as individuals learned from our past? “Our country feels as if it has gathered itself at a cliff and is studying the long scree of loose rock,” Straight writes, “deciding whether to slide down and descend completely again into open hatred.” Most days, I think we are already on the descent. But some days, I read a book like this one, and I hope that we can learn — from these women, from their stories of survival and strength.
Crystal Hana Kim is the author of the novel “If You Leave Me.”
By Susan Straight
Catapult. 384 pp. $26