IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE by Rita Williams


My Life Out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War
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Highly impressionistic memoir by an African-American woman who grew up in Colorado, where she experienced poverty, racism and the tough love of her irascible but devoted aunt.

Williams’s narrative strategies invite considerable skepticism. Though her father, an able carpenter and builder, ran off when she was two, she remembers just how he mixed concrete, how deftly he swung a hammer. She relates many incidents from her youth in pages of verbatim dialogue. Readers may well wonder how much here is remembered, how much imagined. The prose, by contrast, is decidedly unimaginative: Style and vocabulary are unremarkable, the diction often trite (“two shakes of a lamb’s tail”), and the similes strained (one woman’s anomalous beauty reminds the author of “a cantaloupe vine growing in a compost heap”). The author begins with a visit to see Aunt Daisy, now in her 90s, who at 21 married 79-year-old Civil War veteran Robert Ball Anderson. Williams then supplies more family history before launching into her personal story. After her mother died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning (an event whose aftermath is related in “remembered” dialogue), four-year-old Rita went to live near Steamboat Springs with Daisy. Her aunt taught the author about the outdoors, hard work, fishing, slaughtering lambs, raising goslings, poverty, dignity and discipline (she neither spared the rod nor spoiled the child). Rita was bright and curious; she loved reading and the arts and got to take some courses at a local arts camp where Daisy cleaned. As Williams tells it, she bounced around from school to school, questioned religion, endured racism overt and covert and eventually headed off to college. Along the way there is attempted suicide and rape, the latter occurring right after the author hears Dylan sing “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”

Needs more rigorous identification of what is fact, what is fancy.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-15-101154-0
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2006


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