Review by Kelly Shire
In the long prologue that kicks off In the Country of Women (Catapult, 2019), Susan Straight addresses her three daughters: “You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, hoping they – the ancestors – won’t be forgotten.” A childhood photo of her lovely daughters graces the book cover, and they’re frequently addressed throughout, but in Straight’s powerful memoir, it’s the ancestors who take center stage.
In a body of work that includes short story collections and novels such as National Book Award finalist Highwire Moon (2001), Straight has written about the Tulsa and L.A. race riots, the struggles of migrant farmworkers, and the working class, mixed-race characters that inhabit the fictionalized California town she calls “Rio Seco.” In “Country,” her first book of nonfiction, Straight writes frankly about her hometown of Riverside, the real-life setting of Rio Seco, located in the Southern California region known as the Inland Empire. Riverside is where her parents landed, heading west from their birthplaces of Colorado and Switzerland. Riverside is where, at fourteen, Straight, a petite, blue-eyed white girl, met the tall, fifteen-year-old African-American basketball player who became her husband and the father of her girls.
After marrying and briefly living on the East coast while Straight attends graduate school, the young couple return to Riverside to begin their lives. Back home, among husband Dwayne Sims’s extended family, Straight’s parents, and a cast of colorful neighbors, Straight absorbs family legends and the stories of their journeys that comprise the heart of her memoir.
“Country” is a Southern California story and an American diaspora story – but ultimately it’s most deeply a women’s story.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the sheer weight of all that Straight grapples with in this history of people and place might come off as overly ambitious or scattered. But in chapters that alternate timelines and the branches of both sides of her daughters’ family tree, Straight nimbly tackles subjects like domestic violence, the lingering trauma of slavery, and the everyday dangers of being a woman and/or a person of color on the streets of America – whether in 1910s Oklahoma or on the present-day freeways of Orange County.
Straight’s voice is clear and engaging, colored with both self-deprecating humor and a sense of reverence as she explores stories that she understands are not her own – but that she feels she’s been called upon to tell. The book charts the passage of time and her own maturity, growing from a young girl who’s a little intimidated at being the only white person at a Sims family barbecue, on through becoming a leader to a new generation of this same sprawling clan of nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends: “It seems complicated to outsiders. But it’s not. If you have ever been close to anyone in our huge extended family, we will feed you. Give you clothes, a bed, a car…We have your back.” And a few paragraphs later, she reiterates: “…we will always honor kin — the faces around our table, in the candlelight, the ones with whom you can lay your head down by your empty plate and even cry, you are so relieved to be with them again.”
“Country” is a Southern California story and an American diaspora story – but ultimately it’s most deeply a women’s story. The women in these pages loved, struggled, were nearly killed – and in one instance of family lore, killed others – all to keep moving forward, to better their children’s lives, to put food on the table. To survive. Straight’s own survival as a writer is notable too – she raises children, teaches at the local college, divorces Sims (who nevertheless remains ever-present in her home and life) and still manages to write her books, late at night, after her children drop off to sleep, after the neighbors and family have left her, finally, alone.
In The Country of Women is a lyrical, moving narrative, recommended for anyone interested in family history, survival stories, or the meaning of home. Like the best memoirs, it illuminates the meaning of a life (or many lives, in this case), and in doing so helps readers consider their own stories, and those of their family, in a new light.