A Strong West Wind was first reviewed at Bookin’ with Sunny by Ann Ronald in early December of 2012. I was already a fan of Caldwell after reading let’s take the long way home, but after posting Ann’s review of A Strong West Wind, I knew I had to read it for myself. When I finished reading this memoir early Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, I thought it was especially fitting since Caldwell’s father, a WWII veteran, is pivotal to her life story. The Texas Panhandle, that flat brown landscape of Amarillo and Caldwell’s youth, wasn’t the only landscape to affect her early years. She was also shaped by a landscape of books: “Our idea of escape was an order of fries at the snack bar of the Western Riviera — a cross-shaped turquoise swimming pool slapped across the prairie like an SOS sign to God — and then the insouciant promise of the library, where you could lose yourself for hours in sanctioned daydreams.” It is the toughness of the land, “. . .that residing, familiar emptiness,” that drove her to plan her escape and I believe it was the books she read that gave her courage to endure “the ensuing aches and consolations of the journey out.”
Caldwell begins her memoir with a question: “How do we become who we are?” Her father “lit a fire in me that would stay warm forever,” and her mother’s long-held secret dream was “that I might become what she could not.” Caldwell looks back on her youth, including her bout with polio, with remarkable honesty and rather unassuming wisdom – an impressive feat, as her memoir ranges from the near-idyllic years of the postwar 1950s, through the drug-infested anti-near-everything of the 1960s and 1970s. As a child, Caldwell was “the kid who read too much, talked too little, cried inconsolably over novels even as I maintained a steady grip on my own uneventful life. And then, to my parents’ awe and terror, the changes of puberty threw me into adolescence like a bull rider out of a gate.”
Caldwell writes of her cultural and intellectual coming of age with depth and understanding, avoiding the traps of whining and anger that trip up many other memoirists. “A child’s memories are mostly sensate—we’re not yet equipped with the vocabulary or analytic clout to make sense of what we see, and so we remember the cast of light, the smell or signifier that elicits yearning or fear or joy.” Caldwell’s leave-taking from the Texas Panhandle took as many routes as years, from university studies, travels to other states, including the Bay Area (Berkeley in its most turbulent times), and often confusing but important steps into feminism. Through it all, her reflections on the powerful landscape of her youth and the importance of the books she read contain many of the answers to her original question.
For every adult daughter of a tumultuous youth, every father of such a daughter and every mother who understands that father/daughter relationship and has forged a mirrored one of her own with that daughter, this book is a must read. Caldwell’s strong anti-war activities were direct hits on her father’s pride of serving his country in World War II. Some of the most moving passages of this fine book are found in the memories of her visits to see her father in the VA hospital shortly before his death. “During those timeless few days in the hospital, I realized I was part of a scene as sweet in its redemptive irony as I was likely to find. That I, the stubborn daughter, was sitting between two old soldiers from different wars, watching one care for the other and counting on them both to help me through. My heart went out to Chris Ryerson [her father’s roommate] as utterly as it had to all those boys I’d wept over thirty years earlier, when I had been lucky enough to hate the war but not its warriors.”
Caldwell now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2001 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, writing for the Boston Globe. That East Coast landscape is a part of who she is today, but Texas is also present, “The sky changes never and continually…” and “Most days, the offering you get from a Panhandle sky is beauty barely outdone by desolation.” What Caldwell leaves out of her memoir “are the mysteries for which there is no story; they are the air that circles the breaths we take, and they shape our lives as surely as winter, war, God or luck.” A reader will feel A Strong West Wind long after the last page. – Sunny Solomon