I don’t know about you, but I find the memoir in general a tough nut to crack. I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre to read. As a fiction writer, I’m an escapist–I admit that too–always seeking new opportunities to inhabit the lives of fictional others.
The memoir also poses challenges for the reviewer: how to best critique a plotting of events in a life that really happened; how to critique a cast of characters who are actual people?
Then there are my own personal memoir hang-ups, which say much more about my issues–as a “good girl” raised on Rust Belt values (more on that later)–than the genre’s. As in:
- Talking (or writing) about oneself is evidence of vanity.
- Talking about one’s successes is risky business, as in you don’t want to jinx yourself.
- Talking about one’s trials only invites more trials, as in, you think you’ve had it bad, I’ll show you bad; also as in, good girls bear their crosses with (quiet) grace or suffer the consequences.
Amy Jo Burns knows a lot about grace–and about suffering–and she has written a graceful memoir, one I can’t quite review but find myself drawn to write about.
Chances are good I drove through “Cinderland” this past weekend, as the dust continues to swirl around the latest in a long line of sexual-assault-by-public-figure revelations. But the title of Burns’s memoir isn’t an actual place but a figurative (and arguably huge) one.
Cinderland tells the story of Burns’s formative years in [fictionally-titled] Mercury, Pennsylvania, a town in the western part of the state that–like so many others–revered the Rust Belt trinity: Father, Steel, and Holy Football.
Only, Burns grew up in the 1990s, well after the demise of almighty steel, when Mercury is at best a “sleepy” town, at worst a toxic one. The year Burns turns 10, the town is startled awake when the beloved town piano teacher (called Mr. Lotte–one of many biblical references) was accused of sexually assaulting his girl students. Seven young female accusers came forward.
Burns, a student of Mr. Lotte’s, lied when questioned, saying he hadn’t touched her. She (and likely many others) lied to protect her abuser–and herself, doing her best throughout her girlhood and teenage years to keep up good-girl appearances. This is all while planning her escape from the town she loved: a place she was both a part of and apart from.
The allegations tear the town in two–Mr. Lotte’s accusers on one side, his champions on the other. In the end, Mr. Lotte, while maintaining his innocence, pleads guilty in court, for the town’s sake, he says. He serves a short sentence.
Besides great personal tragedy and the turmoil at keeping and finally revealing her secret, Burns delves into a universal tragedy, one that goes far beyond one provincial Rust Belt town. This could be Anywhere, U.S.A.
Young Burns is an adept performer, taking on the mantle of good Christian, girlfriend, actress, cheerleader… The layers of artifice are many, like the layers of tulle in a tutu. (Oh yeah, she was also a dancer, like another Rust Belt girl I know.) Burns graduated second in her high school class–an amazing achievement–but even then is playing a sort of supporting role, in her own life.
The push and pull between the girl psyche and the astute young woman narrating her own history is palpable–and heartbreaking. If I were to review this book, I’d find Cinderland a must-read, especially for the young adult crowd–male and female. I’d find the portrayal of an American girlhood powerful; the portrayal of the setting a bit weak. (That’s not proud Rust Belt Girl talking here–the setting was often filtered through the author, not the narrator, rendering it less powerful than if it had been shown through the perspective of the teenage girl.)
At the end of the memoir is where I felt Burns most artfully illustrated the universal good girl conundrum: stay and pretend or risk an escape. Spoiler: she does escape, to Cornell, and eventually breaks her silence that is Cinderland.
In the last chapter, Burns takes on the town, a sort of horrible Greek chorus, that failed her and so many others:
I did not want to tell this story. I can picture the broad-shouldered men who used to work in town: spreading asphalt in the summer, hunting buck in the winter. I can hear them say, Shut your goddamn trap, will you? Not because they feel the need to keep secrets, but because they still believe in the innocence of a man I once protected.
Who do you think you are, anyway? they’d say. You hightailed it outta here the first chance you got. Some hotshot you are.
And they’d be right. My memories of this place are cinders floating in the air…
For further reading:
Interview with Amy Jo Burns about Cinderland: http://beltmag.com/interview-amy-jo-burns-author-cinderland/