Bonnie Brody's Reviews > When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
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Feb 26, 12

Read from February 22 to 24, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Terry Tempest Williams is one of my favorite writers. I've heard her speak in Alaska and her love and advocacy for the wilderness comes across in every book of hers that I've read. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice is no exception.

After Ms. Williams' mother died at 54, she bequeathed her journals to Terry. When Terry looked at these years of journals, all of them were empty. Being a Mormon, her mother had two distinct obligations as a woman - to bear children and to keep a journal. "Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future. In telling a story, personal knowledge and continuity is maintained." "I am her daughter and I am in love with words." What is to be made of the fact that these journals are all blank? As Ms. Williams says, "In the emptiness of this beloved landscape that has embraced me all my life, I hold my mother's journals as another paradox, journals without words that create a narrative of the imagination. My mother's gift is a mystery." Ms. Williams' book tries to rewrite these journals and fill in the mystery of the blank pages, living out her life and her mother's in a wilderness of creativity, love and healing.

Like the other women in her family, Ms. Williams' mother died early of breast cancer at the age of 54. She was diagnosed with the disease at 38 and given two years to live. Ms. Williams calls her family 'down-winders', catching the wind from the Nevada nuclear experiments that caused heavy radiation fall-out in Utah. Ms. Williams' mother lived until her youngest son was 20, using her strength, tenacity and will to prove the doctors' claims false.

Ms. Williams is a writer. "Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happening of our lives. Keeping a journal is keeping a record. And I have hundreds of them, hundreds of journals filled with feathers, flowers, photographs and words." "Yet the emptiness of my mother's journals carries the weight of a question, many questions. My Mother's Journals are an interrogation."

Ms. Williams describes her words as birds flying out of her mouth. She lives to write. She writes about the landscape, the wilderness, her advocacy work for the wilderness and her family. She puzzles constantly over her mother's journals trying to make peace with their emptiness. "My mother was a great reader. She left me her journals, and all her journals were blank. I believe she wanted them read. How do I read them now?" Ms. Williams reads them by imbibing her mother's spirit into the blankness, by living her own life in her mother's empty journals and rewriting them.

This is a beautiful book, both memoir and essay, showing the values of Ms. Williams' life and her attempts to live her life with her values as her priority. She is a genuine person of deep beliefs and passions, someone for whom the world is a spiritual place of beauty and horror. It is in wilderness and nature that Ms. Williams finds her spirituality and love for life. This is a book that is a must-read for its beauty and wealth.
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