Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Developing a voice others will hear

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, spirituality, women, environmentalism

A peek behind the scenes: I don't buy every book I review. Some, but not most. I haunt the new book sections of a few libraries. I look first at the Science Fiction section (inexplicably mingled with Fantasy in most libraries!), then at Science, then at everything else, but usually not biographies or "mainstream fiction". If I haven't found 3-5 books on a particular visit by that point, I peruse the new LP (large print) section.

I picked up When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations of Voice by Terry Tempest Williams because of the title, and because it was the first book I saw in the 500's (Science in DD system; it is classified 508: Natural History). While I would probably still have gotten it if it were in either 298 (Mormon Religion) or 305 (Women's Studies) where it belongs, perhaps that is less likely. At any rate, it was a very good read.

The author's mother died young, of cancer, as did many of her relatives, possibly because they lived downwind of the A-bomb test site in Nevada (I lived in the same area in the 1950s, and I have also had cancer, but I am a fortunate survivor). Her mother's legacy was a bookshelf of journals; Mormon women are instructed to keep a journal of family history. There was a journal for each year. Every page of every volume was blank.

The book is Ms Williams's autobiographical meditation on what her mother might have written. The 54 chapters are only loosely related to the 54 years of her mother's life; perhaps a bit more to the 54 years of her own age when she wrote. Not in time, but in substance. Assuming the subtitle was her choice alone (editors often arrogate that to themselves), we find a development of her own voice as influenced by the strong women in her family, her mother, both grandmothers, and a couple of aunts. In a key chapter toward the end, she learned to recruit other voices when she found her own voice being brushed aside.

"Voice" has several meanings. Perhaps someone reading this encountered it because to them the title meant gaining singing skills. To the author, "voice" is a political power. Persuasive voice. Voice of influence. The voice that gets things done. If possible, a voice with the power of the one that spoke "Let there be light." Because…then there was light. Thus a major theme of the book is to develop a voice of light in the midst of the voices of darkness and destruction. That is the environmental voice, in her case.

I find it interesting to read this right after Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Williams's writing is not as lyrical as Leopold's, but it is seen to be at least as effective. She did not persuade legislators directly, but by forming a coalition of voices more likely to be heard, at least one major piece of environmental legislation did get enacted, and another has been pending for a decade and may yet be passed.

Finally, I realized how she chose her title. She writes of songbirds scolding a raven that has seized a nestling. Ignoring them, it gulps down its prey. More and more small birds gather and scold. Then there is a sudden silence. And the small birds begin to sing, ignoring the raven. They rise above the incident, rise above the raven. They sing because they have voices to sing with. One nestling may have been lost, but others will survive, and life goes on. Regardless what voices there may be in the world, women who know who they are have voices of life.

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