The womenfolk of Abbott's small-town, 1940s Arkansas are far from pampered belles-for she credits the poverty of the rural South with creating strong if contradictory women. ""I grew up believing. . . that a woman might pose as garrulous and talky and silly and dotty, but at heart she was a steely, silent creature, with secrets no man could ever know."" Abbott is at her best talking--at the start of each section--about her mother and her maternal ancestors; the historical summaries which follow lack the same spirit and conviction, and deal with topics (race relations, revivalist religion, the Southern Lady, etc.) treated in greater depth elsewhere. But there's much to be learned from Abbott's mother, who annoyed her husband by working alongside her black maid, hanging wash and stewing parsnips, thus denying herself the coveted status of ""lady."" ""Some querulous old voice from her Scotch-Irish past told her that if you enslave somebody you do it at the expense of your own identity."" Yet the same woman would spend ""upwards of an hour prettying up"" to go to the dime store. Not for her husband or any other man: ""She was doing it for fun, and for a mark of her separateness . . . . Maybe she wanted me to know. . . that femininity was not merely the massive, serious, strenuous thing she usually made it seem to be, but occasionally a matter of pleasing yourself."" Abbott made adolescent efforts to fit into this believing, dissimulating feminine culture. Trying to get saved at Bible camp, she came down with food poisoning instead: ""My heart unburdened itself of unsaved souls along with the salmonella."" But the slow perception of racism, the growing need to serve a purpose other than the ""sacred mission"" of wife and mother, prompted a break. She became a ""travelin' woman,"" heading North, carrying with her the distinctive attitudes of this Southern female culture--preeminently, the conviction that ""the past matters."" Here, the personal past matters most.