Making A List: Three Great Memoirs About Place

Three Great Memoirs about Place

With the March 12 release of Ben Miller’s River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, the Lookout interns wanted to celebrate five strong memoirs about place.

Only three are listed here since River Bend Chronicle is a soon-to-be fourth. (Rounding out our list will be the forthcoming joint effort by Lookout Interns and PubLab TAs that will focus on lives subject to the cruel whim of the Adobe Creative Suite and there’s always a disturbing amount of doughnuts.)

But for now, books that have been released:


1. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

Harry Crews was perhaps the greatest (or at least most relentless) of the many post-WWII literary firebrands from the South, as evidenced by this gripping memoir detailing the death of a father, a little run-in with polio, hog-killing, poverty, feuds, and other particulars of the life of a six-year old in 1940s Bacon County, Georgia.

Like River Bend Chronicle, A Childhood faces change—of place, of culture, of identity—head on: “I have had to rely not only on my own memory,” Crews says, “but also on the memory of others for what follows here: the biography of a childhood which necessarily is the biography of a place, a way of life gone forever out of the world.

2. Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street by Lee Stringer

Before he was a homeless drug addict living beneath Grand Central Station, Stringer ran a successful graphic design company, which just goes to show you that you shouldn’t take those blessings for granted. I know the cover of your Moleskine tore today, but things could be worse. You might, like Stringer, have to fortify your living space “with enough cardboard baffles to hold any rats at bay (the secret being, of course, to never bring food down here. It’s the food that attracts them).” You might have nothing to do all day but scrape together enough money to buy drugs and then use said drugs in a crawl space beneath the subway. But then you might find a pencil and start writing. “After that there were four things I did every day,” Stringer says after finding his pencil. “Hustle up money, cop some stuff, beam up, and write. And in the end I wound up dropping the other three.”

3. The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness by John Haines

No one writes about snow and killing animals (and animals killing) better than Haines. Where Miller chronicles the junkification of life in urban Iowa, Haines gives us a record of a time before there was “urban” anything, a record of “[t]hat intuitive relation to the world we shared with animals, with everything that exists,” which “once outgrown, rarely returns in all its convincing power.”

He doesn’t just tell stories about a place, but uses that place to tell stories. In the book’s opening essay he says, “To one who lives in the snow and watches it day by day, it is a book to be read…The same text has been written there for thousands of years, though I was not here, and will not be in winters to come, to read it.” Later in the essay he comes across tracks in the snow and reconstructs the scene of a fight between a bull moose and three wolves. “What might have been a silence, an unwritten page, an absence,” he says, “spoke to me as clearly as if I had been there to see it.” I know. You wish you could write like that.

–Eric Cipriani, Lookout Intern