Annie Dillard does not write mere books—she makes poems and delivers them disguised as memoirs or novels. An American Childhood is an experiment at reaching as far back as memory can and capturing it without putting it in a cage. The result is sometimes innocent, sometimes sad, sometimes perplexing, never a mere recounting of events. Dillard finds the essence of childhood and interprets itboth as an adult who was once a child, and as a child who has grown into an adult.
As in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard explores her relationship to the land itself, revealing a life devoted from the beginning to love of natural beauty, its peace and its violence. Like all her works, the tone is pervasively reflective without ever becoming overwhelming or boring or longwinded. Events and ideas are presented in digestible segments that are not fragmented or chronoligically ordered. This ability to defy literary convention without seeming unconventional is one of the brilliant elements of Dillard's utterly distinctive style, a style that embraces the spectrum of life simply and without pretension.
Dillard grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, and the world she describes is often strange. Human nature as she observes it has not changed, however, and it is by this that we recognize her America as essentially the same country we live in. A lot of memoirs drift into self-aggrandisment, name-dropping, and anecdotes of interest only to the author. An American Childhood avoids these pitfalls. It could be Dillard has no names to drop, nothing to aggrandize, but she conveys rather that she simply has no need. What she wants to tell us is not just about her or her life, it's about each of us, and she manages to speak in a language everyone can understand.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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