In this entry in Tobias Wolff’s American Lives series, Shumaker displays a rare gift to reinterpret what often seems like wanton aggression.
In June 2000, the author and her husband Joe were bicycling along a bike path near their home in Fairbanks, Alaska, when a teenager on a four-wheeler barreled around a corner and struck them both. Joe suffered minor injuries, but the author’s were catastrophic, leaving her bedridden and weak for months. Most devastating was the skull fracture and resulting brain damage, which temporarily misplaced parts of her memory. Her memoir is an account of her attempts to reconstruct not just the events surrounding the accident, but also of her earlier years. Told in gem-like vignettes (few are more than two pages), her scattered memories come together to form a riveting and exceptionally touching story. This is not just an exercise in reconstruction, but also in forgiveness, as Shumaker struggles to come to terms with her feelings not just for the youth who almost ended her life, but also her reckless, abusive mother, who died when Shumaker was just 16, and her equally-reckless, but often-absent, father, both of whom were just teenagers when Shumaker was born. Alcoholism and depression ravaged the author’s childhood, forcing her to become a parent to her three younger siblings, but her generous attempts to understand her parents elevates the narrative above the usual hard-luck story and transforms it into something much more delicate and lovely. The structure of the narrative—in which details of Shumaker’s accident, recovery and childhood experiences are interwoven and only gradually disclosed—maintains such a high level of tension that, even at the end, secrets are revealed.
An entrancing meditation on absolution and memory.