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Coming of Age in Unknown Country

by Kim Barnes

Pub Date: May 3rd, 1996
ISBN: 0-385-47820-8
Publisher: Doubleday

 A poet's sad and beautiful memoir about growing up in Idaho logging country, in the complicated bosom of a fundamentalist Christian family. We readers often approach poets' memoirs warily: There is only so far that lovely, delicately crafted reminiscenses of childhood can really take us. They deliver pleasure, easily, but rarely go beyond it to the kind of bold, perspective-wrenching joy that is the province of real literature. Barnes's book forces reconsideration of the form. More in the tradition of spiritual autobiography than literary memoir--with its trials in the wilderness, falls from grace, and conversions and reconversions to faith--Barnes's tale is in part that of an actual American wilderness, the logging camp where she began her life. Her parents' Christian rebirth came later and the scene reordered itself to include revival meetings, dowdy clothes, speaking in tongues, and mandated demure feminine behavior. At a revival meeting a preacher declared Barnes to be a healer, a girl with a gift. At 14, increasingly restive, she was labeled a juvenile delinquent and was sent as punishment to live with the loving, tranquil family of a former minister who, notwithstanding the girl's restored piety, soon chose to shun her as a satanic influence. Adolescence went on and on, with Barnes's very real religiosity becoming increasingly, unsurprisingly complex. In some ways Barnes was a regular American girl; in other ways, like Yeats's dancer indistinguishable from the dance, she herself is the complicated and continuing story of the American struggle with raw wilderness and with the dark night of the soul (her mother finds her as a teenager slumped against the side of her bed, having fallen asleep praying, and wakes her up to go to school). It could scarcely be more significant that the author still lives in Idaho, above the Clearwater River. This is also a book about humility, and how one is of one's origins, no matter how far a person has traveled in imagination, artistry, and insight.