Memoir as Love Story

My best friend in college was devoted to romance novels. While I was busy analyzing Moby Dick and Their Eyes Were Watching God for American Lit., she was deep into Harlequin Romance territory. I don’t really know if they were Harlequins–I’d only flip through one occasionally, looking for the juicy parts–but I do know they could be purchased, and cheaply, at Walmart.

Other girls headed out to parties (we did that sometimes, too), but plenty of Friday nights would find us at Walmart, hunting for my friend’s next love story near the checkout lines. I can understand(ish) the appeal of the stories. I love love. Though I’ve never been drawn to read–or even watch–what we typically think of as love stories. (Embarrassing fact: this American woman right here has yet to ingest a sugary Hallmark Christmas movie. Will meet-cute elude me again this year?)

In my MFA program in fiction, we did have to write a piece of erotica, but that’s just the juicy parts, and not necessarily a love story. We writers in the literary vein do hear, often, that our stories are depressing. They are about love, of course. But they’re often also about loss and longing, and maybe redemption provides some resolution. But literary stories usually don’t conclude with a syrupy, happily-ever-after kiss staged in a small-town gazebo where the shy but hunky townie in a flannel shirt embraces the big city girl with the sharp tongue and even sharper stilettos–in gently falling snow. Unless maybe it’s satire.

Of course, there’s much more to love stories–real and imagined–than romantic love. You remember: philía, éros, and agápe, or brotherly or sisterly love, romantic love, and unconditional love. And while we might not think of the memoir as a genre of love stories, I argue that it is just that.

I hadn’t read much memoir before starting this blog four years ago. But blogging is good training in writing (and reading) mini memoirs. And my mission to delve into the literature of my native Rust Belt place led me to more memoirs than I could count (or read or review, but I try!).

They are different, all the memoirs I’ve discussed here at the blog, but each and every one is a love story:

Oh, hey, why not start with the controversial guy? I was so confounded by Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (and adapted to film recently, to, shall we say, mixed reviews?) I noted right here, in the early-blog days, that I read it, but I didn’t review it. I’m sure on a second pass, I would find what I found on the first read: in a failed attempt to understand the people (and not just demographic statistics) of his native place, J.D. Vance fell in love with himself in this memoir, and not in a self-actualizing, come-to-Jesus kind of way; but in a self-aggrandizing, come-to-J.D. kind of way.

On the other end of things, David Giffels is a writer who is incredibly in tune with the place he comes from–and his place in it. So much so that The New York Times called him “the bard of Akron”–Akron being Ohio’s “Rubber City,” for, ahem, rubber and tire manufacturing, a la Goodyear. Through his essays, including those in The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, David falls in love with his hometown over and over. In memoir, including his All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House and Furnishing Eternity, he lets us readers share in his complicated and often funny family life–and love.

In Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (no relation, except as inspiration for my blog name!), Paul Hertneky’s stories of childhood and young adulthood in steel-country Pennsylvania give the reader a glimpse into “America’s blue-collar heart.” In delving into his personal past, the memoirist allows us to explore the roots of the author and the roots of the Rust Belt’s industrial rise and fall–and fall in love with a storied American past.

Amy Jo Burns’ Cinderland is a coming of age memoir in which the memoirist invites the reader into a burning secret of her past, childhood abuse that caused her pain and grief. In her essays, too, the author delves into the false notion of the female as “a body for consumption.” As I’ve come to know Amy Jo, more, through her writing and online conversation–I see her work in memoir as getting to the burning heart of self-love as first love. (And if you haven’t read Amy Jo’s novel, Shiner, one of my favorite books of the year, what are you waiting for?)

In Sonja Livingston’s memoirs and essays, the author lets us in on her journey of the spirit. It comes down to faith–not doctrinal, but “raw” faith, the faith that draws us forward from the heart into the unknown. In Ghostbread, the author lovingly revisits her childhood, growing up in poverty in Rochester, New York. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, she undergoes an external journey to find the missing statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood parish; at the same time, she looks inward, as many of us (try to) do at this time of year, especially. The love of the journey is palpable–sensual and real–in all this writer’s works.

Which brings me to my current read. Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Rust is a memoir of an unlikely Cleveland steelworker, who comes to reclaim the hometown she’d always meant to leave behind. It’s also a memoir exploring the female body politic–writ large on society and small on one woman, struggling to find hope. I won’t spoil it, because I’m hoping Eliese will talk with us here at the blog. But this memoir is a love story if I’ve ever read one.

So, tell me, what’s your favorite love story? What’s your favorite memoir? Do you write memoir, yourself? Share in the comments. I love to get a good discussion going!

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Love in Cleveland: a story-review of CROOKED RIVER BURNING

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There’s something special about a love story set in the time and place one’s parents fell in love.

Paris? London? Niagara Falls? Nope. I’m talking about Cleveland, Ohio.

The real love story (that eventually begat me and my siblings) started with a blind date. Here goes: the young man who would become my dad met the young woman who would become my mom at her apartment door. Her first words to him: “You’re not as bald as they said you were.” Ah, romance. Long story short, she liked his car, a racing-green Austin Healey convertible, and him too, no doubt.

Crooked River Burning*, a novel by Mark Winegardner, explores parallel love stories—between a boy from Cleveland’s West Side and a girl from Cleveland’s East Side (read: upstart vs. old money); and between the people of Cleveland and their city itself.

From the book jacket:

In 1948 Cleveland was America’s sixth biggest city; by 1969 [the year my parents married] it was the twelfth…In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks. Anne O’Connor, at twelve, is the apple of her political boss father’s eye. David and Anne will meet—and fall in love—four years later, and for the next twenty years this pair will be reluctantly star-crossed lovers in a troubled and turbulent country.

The city of Cleveland is a microcosm of this changing country. The author gives the reader a window into organized crime in the 40s, when we meet real-life Clevelander Eliot Ness; into the 50s rock and roll scene starring disc jockey Alan Freed; and into the race riots of the 60s, when we meet Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

For sports fans (Winegardner is also the author of The Veracruz Blues about baseball), there are stories plenty about the Indians and the Browns (with Art Modell cast as the Machiavellian villain he was, IMO.) Masterfully blending fact (replete with entertaining footnotes) and fiction, this novel is comparable to the works of E.L. Doctorow. Where Doctorow explored New York, Winegardner explores Cleveland.

Does Winegardner know Cleveland! One of my favorite Cleveland bits—and never more appropriate than now, as we endure “wet-winter” into April:

“In Cleveland there is no spring. In Cleveland there is winter, then a wetter-meaner sort of winter…Then one day winter/wet-winter ends and, bingo-bango, it’s summertime.”

But why talk weather when we can talk love? Wingardner on love:

“A person can be in love with the idea of love. A person can fall in love with the idea of another person. Less commonly, a person can fall in love with another person.

In fact, a person always falls in love with the idea of another person, not the person. Falling in love with the actual person takes time and too much honesty…

Some people luck out. The thing they’ve been calling love turns out to be just that. Such people exist. Film at eleven.”

Oh, you were looking for love between David and Anne? I’m not spoiling much when I tell you that the most romantic setting in the book, a snowy New York at Christmastime in a posh hotel suite, and Anne is down with the flu. On the other extreme, the setting of the Cuyahoga (“crooked”) River on fire finds our protagonists in, well, love as real as it gets.

Is the book perfect? Not quite. For me, some of the real-life Cleveland profile sections ran a little long: among them, Mayor Carl Stokes, Cleveland newspaper editor Louie Seltzer, maybe-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer news broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. Still, this book will find a place on my bookshelves, alongside Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, perhaps, for its mastery of a real time and place in history overlaid with a timeless love story and for a lyrical yet playful use of language.

But back to our fictional lovers…through their twenties and thirties, David and Anne attempt to make their childhood professional dreams (Cleveland mayor, and war correspondent, respectively) come true. But, like thwarted love stories talk of ships passing, most of us don’t become our childhood heroes.

If the real Cleveland love story—starring my dad and my mom—could have met the imagined one starring David and Anne, they would have come together in the late 60s. Both couples were in love as the real city burned its land and its water. The Cuyahoga River burned (helping to create the Clean Water Act); and the Hough Riots, among the first of the 1960s race riots, turned Clevelanders against their neighbors and even against themselves.

Like many Clevelanders who could, my parents left the city for a house in the country, where they would raise a few chickens and ducks, a goat named Esmeralda, and three human kids. In trading one setting for another, I’m sure they’d say they gained more than they lost. I wonder about those who didn’t leave.

Did Winegardner intend for this dual love story to be a cautionary tale? In 2018, one could read the book that way—especially through the lens of race. One of the most chilling parts of the book comes from Anne’s perspective. It’s a month after the riots, and Anne is questioning everything in her life and in her city:

“Human beings don’t destroy their own homes, do they? In Anne’s experience, they do…Rome burns. Has burned, is burning, always will be burning. Look harder. Smell it. It’s not Rome we’re talking about, sport. (Who knows but on the lower frequencies, Cleveland burns for you?) Yet you sit there. We sit there. Don’t move.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

What’s the best book you’ve read about your hometown? If you were going to write your own love story, where would you set it?

*Published in 2001 by Mariner Books (576 pages). Yep, I’m late to the party.

Like this review? Check out my “reviews” category above for more.

Thanks! ~ Rebecca