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CLEAR SPRINGS by Bobbie Ann Mason


A Memoir

by Bobbie Ann Mason

Pub Date: May 3rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44925-6
Publisher: Random House

An appreciative but often bittersweet meditation on southern family and cultural change by the author In Country (1985) and Feather Crowns (1993). Like many small-town girls, Mason fled her hometown of Clear Springs, Ky., for more exciting locales—the University of Kentucky, New York City, New England—only to be inexorably drawn back. The narrative alternates between remembrance and present-tense visits to the farm where she was raised. Telling her own story, Mason is by turns vivid (as when she writes of her idyllic post-WWII childhood) and vague (describing her troubled young adulthood in the 1960s she airily declares, “The counterculture saved me” without clearly explaining how). Her early years were typically writerly and not terribly compelling: she was ostracized at school for her precocious love of books; early literary influences included Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and Little Women. Her adventures as fan club president for the popular crooners called the Hilltoppers do add some needed spice. But the fiction writer seems far more engaged when divining the motivations and character of family, particularly her paternal grandmother and mother, whose stories are inextricably linked. Mother Chris is a resilient, hardworking woman whose life is nevertheless subjugated to the demands of her husband and mother-in-law. Chris’s bleak childhood as an orphan raised (but not loved) by relatives who were caretakers at the county poorhouse provides Mason a context for her own privileged upbringing and eventual rebellion. Grandmother Ethel, also hardworking but an inflexible matriarch prone to nervous breakdowns, dominates the family and provides a link to the disappearing lifestyle that fascinates Mason. As she struggles to extract her family’s history from their silence and emotional reserve, she learns about herself and makes a valuable connection between the family’s evolution and the larger cultural transformation of the South. A few dull stretches aside, this is a sharp, perceptive family memoir. Lucky is the clan who has a writer of Mason’s caliber to preserve and interpret its history. (Author tour)