In the early 90s, I read the book “I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots” by a fairly new author named Susan Straight. The story of a black South Carolina Low country woman who finds her place in the world during the Civil Rights Movement, it resonated with me because I was new to the South and had a lot to learn. This astonishing book helped, and I have followed Straight’s writing career ever since watching her win countless well deserved awards for books like “Highwire Moon” (finalist for the National Book Award in 2001) and “A Million Nightingales” (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2006).
Straight is a highly unusual woman who has lived an unusual life. Brought up in the hardscrabble and diverse city of Riverside, Calif., she graduated from UCLA, and in 1984, received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts, where she studied with James Baldwin, and was strongly influenced by the writer Joan Didion. A petite blond, she married a tall African American basketball player from her early school days and the two of them brought three girls into the world, each one born and raised in Riverside. Straight and her little women, as she calls her daughters, “knew our homeland as Louisa May Alcott knew Concord and environs,” and it is for them that she has written her latest book, “In the Country of Women” (Catapult Press), a memoir of ancestors, family and community that reaches back to the mid-19th century and crisscrosses a forest of family trees. There are more people in it than in an encyclopedia and the stories are complex and layered. But, ultimately, it is radiant and bewitching.
Straight’s family tree includes strong women – a modest working-class group, filled with struggles and strength. Her mother is a cold, strict Swiss nurse, who left Europe in World War II, and there are sisters who left the Colorado prairie to travel west (everyone ends up going west in this book). They married many times, mothering their own children and those of others, dwelling among inland California’s lemon groves, tumbleweeds and burning Santa Ana winds.
Straight gravitated to the more welcoming homes of other parents in the Riverside neighborhood where she lived: the Japanese mothers with their “rice-paper screens and kimonos;” the Mexicans with their “plaster statues of the Virgin of Guadeloupe” and especially the black Southerners with their “gumbo and greens.” She wanted her daughters to know their roots; she wanted “to write about us,” which includes the family of ex-husband Dwayne Sims, the boy she started dating at 15, and father of her girls. Straight is white, he is black and together they are “the child of immigrants, married to the child of people once enslaved.”
Dwayne’s family numbers are in the hundreds, largely the offspring of more exceptionally strong women. Their lives span centuries and it’s the black women, including Straight’s own daughters, that this book celebrates. When Dwayne first brought Straight – a short skinny white girl – home to a Memorial Day picnic, she says that she “felt the stares of amusement, protective suspicion and sidelong glances.” She remembers Dewayne’s dashiki-clad sister “rolled her eyes and turned away,” while a cousin reacted to Straight’s outstretched hand with the words: “Oh, hell, no.” But Dwayne’s mother, Alberta, welcomed Straight at their table, and, in time, she grew to belong to this extensive black family, to take her place among the aunties who oversee all the younger generations.
Men are present in the stories, but Straight is writing the heroine’s journey rather than the hero’s, concentrating on characters whose against-all-odds odysseys are rarely recognized. She tells her daughters how the women who came before them “were, like Odysseus, imprisoned and seduced and threatened with death. They slept with lotus-eaters and escaped monsters like the Cyclops and Charybdis, and sometimes they battled other women who were Sirens or who tried to steal their children. …They shed blood for us.”
Their history is heartbreaking. There’s Fine (as in “fine to work”) Dwayne’s great-grandmother, “utterly alone after her enslaved mother died when she was six or seven.” Born during Reconstruction, she was taken (but not taken in) by a white family. She grew up penniless, and had three children as a teenager. “There was inside her a core of fury and independence and self-preservation, the genetic heritage of survival,” Straight writes as she charts Fine’s trek from Tennessee to Texas, an exhaustive journey even readers can feel in their bones. And there was Daisy, born in Mississippi, whose mother was killed by a car driven by white men. Realizing the car wasn’t stopping, Daisy’s mother threw her 5-year-old daughter out of harm’s way and Daisy grew to bare four daughters, and traveled to California to make the family’s home in Riverside. She passed away the year before Straight married her grandson.
The storyline moves through time and place, and you might wish for a United States map and a genealogy chart. As the characters become more familiar, though, it’s clear that their stories aren’t twisting lines but rather strands in a braid.
As painful as their histories can be, it’s devastating to see how that pain and prejudice have carried through to the present. A terrifying episode from Straight and Dewayne’s youth, when police confront them and hold a gun to Dewayne’s head, is repeated later when they see their daughter’s car pulled over on the way to a birthday party. “My job is to be the short blond mom,” writes Straight, who intervenes with the officers, fearing for the children’s lives.
Yet “In the Country of Women” is filled with a lot of beauty, thanks to the author’s carefully selected memories and elegantly clear prose. She tells about the steadfast appointment she had each Friday night to fix her daughters’ hair: “In our family, and in black communities at large like ours, the care and maintenance of your hair meant more than just barrettes and ponytails; your hair reflected our pride and care and love. Neglected heads displayed for the public a serious lack of all three.” The long hours with combs and conditioners were never a waste of time, she writes. “It was the truest part of my existence as a mother.”
In the end, this book is about far more than a country of women. It’s a love letter to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe Straight claims as her own, and through these family stories, she also skillfully reveals the complicated realities of American history. Mostly, however, it’s a book about survival, motherhood and love, and it’s as big and messy and beautiful as all of these things.