Essayist and incidental feminist Holland (They Went Whistling, 2001, etc.) turns septuagenarian and, perforce, autobiographical, recounting the story of her first 18 years.
Caught by the pigtails, Holland’s childhood history recalls the nation’s capital during WWII, when kids were on the alert for Luftwaffe intruders and Nazi spies. It was a time when children had little more than one another for entertainment. Cuisine was standard American white bread. School was an enemy camp, and grownups were a mystery for young Barbara. Mom went barefoot and kept her nose in a book, Grandmother was a Socialist and adept at poker, and siblings were mostly an annoyance. Occupying Dad’s chair was a cold, even terrifying, stepfather. Our author displayed a preternatural attentiveness to her surroundings (as she still does). The knack of reading came to her fully formed, like an epiphany, and so did the writer’s calling. With her considerable analysis, Holland covers every variety of experience from mid-century—her discovery of books, adventurous dreams, powerful hopes and fears, dimwitted teachers, race, war, cursive handwriting, radio and—especially—the inviolable rules of belonging to one’s own gender. Boys ruled. “It was unseemly for a woman of any age to sit on leather,” we learn, “and almost indecent for a girl.” Beyond simple elegiac recollection, Holland’s memoir includes much awareness of rigidly assigned gender-based roles. Eventually, though, this little touch of Grover’s Corners in the night passes. The spirit of Holland’s youth fades away and a solemn, pensive childhood crashes down as this smart coming-of-age text comes to an end. It’s all credible and persuasive, for, as Holland notes, “gelatinous” memory, once written down, “turns to stone, right or wrong, a fact.”
With not much about sex but a lot about gender, here’s an acute narrative of how the clever Holland came to be so writerly.