Tabitha Blankenbiller's Reviews > The Boys of My Youth

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
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Apr 07, 2011

really liked it

Reading Beard’s memoir is like being invited into the home of a poor hostess. She’ll open the door and let you stay, but you’re never going to be offered an ice tea or coat rack. She doesn’t seem to be writing for an audience, but for a purpose higher and much more personal—therapy, enrichment, growth, discipline, all of the trademarks of a great writer. As a result, The Boys of My Youth is very honest and open, ripe with scenes that linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the page. Her experiences and descriptions are familiar and latch onto your own memories, like the description of her grandparent’s living room: “framed sayings from the olden days, plaques with jokes about outhouses, a pair of flying ceramic ducks with orange beaks and feet, and on and on” (Beard 13).
Less familiar is the layout and arc of the book. Beard’s writing styles and techniques vary wildly throughout the book, evidence that this is likely a collection of essays created over a varying arc of life and experience. She seems uninhibited by experimentation, taking risks that I have not seen from many nonfiction writers. When it comes to that age-old “truth, whole truth, or nothing but the truth” debate that raged on within my first residency, Beard leans heavily on the almost-fiction side of the spectrum. On several occasions she delves right into straight fiction. Cousins is a perfect example, one that also uses the “braided essay” technique. She juxtaposes scenes of her childhood and young adulthood, spent with her cousin Wendell, with her mother and aunt. The essay culminates with her mother dying, slipping off into a peaceful netherworld of lakes and canoes and jumping fish. We know that Beard was not present at this meeting, nor can she know what her mother was feeling or seeing life slipped away. We can be confident that she is being true to the characters and the life she remembers, and surmising a truth that she can believe and that we can accept. She ties off the braid with a beautiful allusion to the parade scene at the beginning of the essay: a girl’s baton sailing up into the sunlight, “a silver hyphen against the hot sky” (Beard 24). It reappears in her mother’s looming afterlife, a flying fish sailing above her. The woven story of family; cousins and sisters, friends and foes, creates a harmony between the brightness of childhood and the eventual, inevitable sunset of life.
The braided essay/fictionalized writing is less successful in Coyote, where the activities of a desert coyote are contrasted with the author and her boyfriend on a camping trip. The delving into the coyote’s psyche seems obviously fake and forced, especially when used so heavily in the essay. Though his stalking of rabbits and passing of cacti is gorgeously written, it becomes dull and doesn’t seem to fit with the point of the essay or arc of the entire memoir. Is Jo Ann a coyote, running in solitude on little sustenance? Is the coyote a kindred spirit? Does she belong in the desert? Should her cad of an ex-husband be the coyote’s next meal? These questions distract from the overall story, and whatever answer you reach doesn’t add to the end message. Comparing Cousins with Coyote was a good example of what can go right, and what can go wrong, in adding the “braided essay” to my toolbox.
Looking at the construction of the book reminded me of Dorianne Laux and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s craft talk, The Architecture of the Book. Beard arranged her collected essays in an order that builds curiosity and tension, foreshadowing events and slowly unraveling them for us. We know early on that she gets divorced, but it isn’t until later that we have- collected enough snippets and peeks to know why. She ends on an extremely high note with the book’s title essay, The Boys of My Youth. This was my favorite piece in the book, which weaves the story that she’s trying to tell (about the “boys of her youth—and the men who replace them”, according to the book jacket) with the process of trying to write it, which is influenced heavily by her impending divorce. In the end, the essay does not end up being about the boys of her youth, but rather the girls within it; chiefly her best friend, Elizabeth. Beard’s story is one that is common to many women, of family and female friends being pillars of support and influence throughout life. The boys may ebb and flow, but these tenants are constants.
I admired Beard’s fearless style and techniques, especially from the perspective of example. Her book showcases the power of contrast and creative timelines, and has provided some good fodder for my own stories.

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