Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


The importance of this book to me can hardly be overstated, as I’ve read it many times since my childhood. It offers many possible annotation subjects: the dreamy quality of the stories Williams tells; the line between fact and fiction; the liberal use of other writers’ words to compile her own impressions; the interplay between Mormon and Navajo traditions; her study of storytelling as communication and education across generations. But here I am most interested in her use of objects as an organizing principle.

Williams’s chapters are organized by the items she keeps in a leather pouch on her desk at the Utah Museum of Natural History, where she works as museum curator. The prologue opens: “Out of my pouch falls a sprig of sage.” This prologue is different from the rest of the book in that it is set in Williams’s family home and tradition, while the rest of the book stays with the Navajo and her work life. Sage backgrounds her home. Chapter one, “Curator,” presents the pouch. Its first two paragraphs read,

I am a collector. On my desk sits a small leather pouch, weatherbeaten, full of mementos of the desert. I have carried it with me everywhere in Navajoland. It is my link with the Diné, as they call themselves. I am shy. The people are shy. The objects inside give us courage to speak.

I shake the objects out of their pouch and spread them across my desk. What stories they tell: a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen. Wait–something is missing. I shake the pouch four more times and from the bottom of the bag rolls out the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez.

This list of objects forms the rest of the chapter titles. The prologue is subtitled “A Sprig of Sage,” and the rest following chapter 1, “Curator,” proceed: “Rocks, Sand, and Seeds,” “Turquoise, Obsidian, and Coral,” etc. down the list. “Storyteller” is followed by “Home,” and then an epilogue, acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography. With just a few exceptions, the pouch’s contents neatly form the table of contents. As a writer who has always struggled with titles, this neatness appeals to me.

Within each chapter, the object or objects offer entry into stories, folklore, natural history, and personal musings. The connections between object and story are often tenuous: they make sense to Williams, and she is content to leave them sketched. My first impression is that she follows her mind where it wanders without much explicit mapping of those wanderings for her reader. Let me look closer at how each chapter title describes its contents.

The sprig of sage is the Utah landscape that Williams and her family and her Mormon culture belong to; it leads her to family stories. The rocks, sand, and seeds are the geography of Navajoland (the Colorado Plateau), and this chapter lets her tell the story of that land both through the science of geography and through Navajo mythology. Turquoise, obsidian, and coral are colors: of the desert, and of Navajo mythology again. Pieces of white shell are vestiges of the ocean that once covered Navajoland, and this leads her to an old world and old traditions, again accessed in part through myth. Yucca is soap, tradition, and the traditional ceremony surrounding a Navajo woman’s first menses.

A bouquet of feathers bound by yarn is classic Terry Tempest Williams: her obsession with birds, and their place in the myth and culture and ecology of the region. Here she tells stories of communing with a great horned owl, and of attending a powwow. Coyote fur is also obvious, allowing a way in to Coyote/Trickster stories. A bone from Black Mountain is a storytelling opportunity: Williams picks up a bone and dreams, imagines herself shrinking to Flea and listening in on the storytelling of the animals on the mountain. The chapter ends with a lesson about the nature of storytelling.

Deerskin begins the reentry of Williams’s own family, as her father’s and brothers’ hunting traditions meet the Navajo Deerhunting Way. Wool is a connection to the Navajos’ sheepherding tradition. A potshard and some corn pollen lets Williams imagine her way into the ancient world of the Anasazi, the Navajos’ precursors in the region. The Storyteller reminds her of two women in particular that she’s known; the reader recognizes that Williams is herself a storyteller, as well, with all the ritual and roles associated. The outlier final chapter, “Home,” re-grounds Williams back in the present, in her office at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I can see now that these objects each lead Williams into history, myth, place, and culture, associatively. In fact, it’s a more consistent, standard strategy than it immediately appeared to me–almost a formula, but with a feeling more intuitive and natural than that implies.

Within chapters there is an organization to admire, too. Many chapters both start and end with an image, or with the object itself, circular. This keeps the reader grounded in the objects and the images and associations they call up. It is part of what makes my overall impression of this book as both simple and profound: the pattern brings the reader back around, always, so that she remembers the objects that brought us here. Williams deals in concepts that ask her reader to stop and think, but she grounds them in easily grasped things. The chapter titled “A Bouquet of Feathers Bound by Yarn” begins with the word “birds” and ends with “birds burst into song”; the title phrase occurs in both the next-to-first and next-to-last sentences.

As a writer intimidated by both titles and the conclusion and tying-up of essays, this structure appeals to me very much as a strategy to make my own work easier to organize. I appreciate that the effect on me as reader was not of a formula but of an artful form. I think there may be a shortcut here for me. In my critical essay, there are several aspects of Pieces of White Shell that I hope to mine for my own work: overall organization of a collection, the theming of individual chapters or essays, and things standing in for stories or concepts, as ways in.


Rating: 9 coyotes return.

4 Responses

  1. I am lovin’ it; every single iteration of revisitation, each richer than the last. Who knew, so many years ago, where this would lead? I would love to identify the benefactor….

  2. […] of my early annotations covered two of my CE’s central texts: Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell and Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Are you sick of hearing about those two […]

  3. […] Pieces of White Shell, Terry Tempest Williams […]

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