Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.
I am loving Mary Karr’s well-regarded memoir about growing up in small-town East Texas. She is amazing in many regards, on which more to come soon; but today I want to talk about describing place. I have a special fascination with a “sense of place” in the books I read, whether they are fictional descriptions of real places (James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly, on Louisiana and Los Angeles respectively) or made-up places (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, or du Maurier’s Manderley), or nonfiction.
If Daddy’s past was more intricate to me than my own present, Mother’s was as blank as the West Texas desert she came from. She was born into the Dust Bowl, a vast flat landscape peppered with windmills and occasional cotton ranches. Instead of a kitty for a pet, she had a horny toad. She didn’t see rain fall, she said, for the first decade of her life. The sky stayed rock-white and far away.
About all she later found to worship in Leechfield was the thunderstorms, where were frequent and heavy. The whole town sat at a semitropical latitude just spitting distance from the Gulf. It sat in a swamp, three feet below sea level at its highest point, and was crawled through by two rivers. Any hole you dug, no matter how shallow, magically filled up with brackish water. Even the wide ditches that ran in front of the houses, where I later learned that sidewalks ought to be, were not enough to keep the marsh from burbling up.
This is an astounding piece of writing. So much is communicated, and much of it we take in without even noticing. On the surface, we see that Mother is from West Texas, where it is dry, and East Texas, where the author grew up, is much wetter. But just below that surface, we get a time-frame (implied by the Dust Bowl reference), and a visual cue from “rock-white”: rocks aren’t white everywhere, but now we have a blinding tone for the “blank” West Texas desert. I love that Leechfield is “spitting distance” from the Gulf of Mexico: another reference to wetness; and “was crawled through” by two rivers? That’s a passive voice usage to compete with Hemingway’s famous one that I keep referring to. I like what is implied by that last line: Karr didn’t know about sidewalks til she left town. Not to mention the onomatopoeic effect of burbling…
Creative Nonfiction magazine has a special issue coming out on the theme of Weather. If they get to publish any passages remotely as communicative and deceptively simple as this one, I think they’ll be glad.