Sahr recounts her mother’s long and eventful life in this debut biography.
Mildred “Millie” Milby was born in 1908 in the Territory of New Mexico, just a few years before it became a state. It was a difficult birth, made more harrowing by a snowstorm and an absent doctor. But Mildred survived and went on to live in a bustling household, consisting of her parents, Effie and Arthur Milby, and her three siblings; her beloved aunt and uncle were also frequently present. The family settled in Milton, Oregon, where the death of Mildred’s mother threw the family into turmoil. Her father left the children to their own devices, and a neglected Mildred turned to her aunt for daily essentials and affection. Sahr writes that Mildred’s father eventually remarried a socially ambitious woman named Marian, who despised the young girl. A conflict over canning peaches resulted in Arthur beating Mildred, she says, and sending her to live at a remote girl’s school at the age of 14. A scrappy, resourceful young woman who inherited her mother’s love of music, Mildred successfully obtained a teaching degree. Later joys, such as the birth of her three children (including the author) and idyllic family vacations to the lake, were tempered by the death of two husbands, conflicts with siblings, and the physical realities of aging. Mildred lived to an impressive 99 years of age. Sahr effectively builds upon extensive discussions with her mother, historical research, and Mildred’s own detailed diaries to build the book’s narrative. The narrative is most vivid when detailing Mildred’s complicated, difficult childhood, and Sahr movingly captures her mother’s desperate search for belonging (albeit with some apparent creative license when depicting specific conversations). The story moves much more quickly after Mildred enters adulthood, but at the cost of psychological insight; for example, the author compresses 15 years of Mildred’s life in Arizona with her second husband, Chett, into one short chapter. Later chapters, written more from Sahr’s perspective, touch on the challenges of caring for an aging parent who’s fiercely attached to her independence.
A somewhat uneven tribute, but one that particularly shines during its first half.