An award-winning writer tells the story of his family by exploring the lives of three remarkable female relatives through three generations.
Shelton (Emeritus, English/Univ. of Arizona; Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, 2007, etc.) reflects on a childhood and adolescence spent “hover[ing] precariously between the middle and lower classes.” Rather than offer a chronology of events in his family life, the author interweaves his life reflections with stories about his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who all kept the journals Shelton uses to construct his larger narrative. He begins with his great-grandmother Josephine. A Midwestern beauty who married a jack-of-all-trades husband with a penchant for writing poetry, Josie was a hardscrabble Kansas homesteader in the late 1800s. “For Josie,” writes Shelton, “there is no yellow brick road and no wizard,” only grueling labor and an early death. Her daughter, Charlotte, settled in Idaho, raised four children, and survived two difficult marriages, a scandalous affair, and several live-in lovers before marrying a man nearly a decade her junior. This free-spirited woman offended Shelton’s mother, Hazel, who wanted “genteel respectability above all else.” Yet Hazel’s own marriage to the charming, alcoholic Red was far from a middle-class fairy tale. Despite having been raised in a rich farming community where many of his relatives had been wealthy landowners, Red was a poor man who made his living as a bootlegger during the Depression and then as a house painter later on. Emotionally distant from Shelton, Red routinely had affairs with other women, which Hazel tried to avenge by shooting up a bar Red frequented with his girlfriends. Only when Shelton, who became the first in his family to go to college, became Red’s caretaker during his final illness did the rifts in their own relationship begin to heal. In this richly textured book, the author creates a memorable family portrait and reveals the way patterns of living within families shape expectations and reality.
A quietly profound memoir “of a family and how it got that way.”