Memoir Book Review: Laura Furman’s The Mother Who Stayed: Stories, Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on October 5, 2011

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #62 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Photo by Ave Bonar

Photo by Ave Bonar

The Mother Who Stayed: Stories
by Laura Furman

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“History is the history of human behavior,
and human behavior is the raw material of fiction.”
—Amy Waldman

“Truth in Imagined Things”
Wall Street Journal

Memoir Writing as Meditation: The Art of Leaving Unsaid

How do we define memoir? It appears under so many fascinating guises. Take diaries, for instance. Suppose a writer applied imagination to create fiction from them. And thereby hangs a tale . . . .

For most of the years between 1874 and 1902, one ordinary woman kept a personal record of her life’s events in a daily almanac. She made brief notes about minutiae . . . trivialities. After she died in 1907, the diaries sat in a dilapidated house in eastern New York State for sixty-five years.

Then a writer bought the nineteenth-century home in 1972 and discovered the journals. Amidst the tumult of renovating this messy, cluttered, broken-down property to live there, the writer packed them away. Later she moved the box with her to Texas, yet she never forgot the chronicle of a life lived in the previous century.

Now, thirty-nine years later, those daily logs have become the creative basis of a trilogy of short stories blending truth with fiction.

Author Laura Furman, series editor of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, has written novels, short stories, essays, and yes — a memoir called Ordinary Paradise: A Memoir. She also founded the magazine American Short Fiction.

Furman has lived in Texas since 1978. For many years, Austin has been her home. She taught a class in memoir writing at the University of Texas in 2001. That group bonded so well the members continued to meet on their own even after the class ended and Furman was no longer associated with it.

I’ve been a member of that memoir group since 2006. This past summer, I heard that Laura Furman would be speaking at Seton Cove about “Truth in Fiction: Historical Research and the Nurturing of Imagination,” so I went to hear her. She described her relationship with the box of old diaries from the time she first chanced upon them, and graciously gave me a hard copy of her talk to quote in this article.

“The house was a mess,” Furman noted. “Damp magazines, empty bottles and cans littered the floor downstairs. Upstairs old plaster walls were broken down to the lath. There were heaps of cloth, an old sewing machine, and an awkward bundle of wood strips that turned out to be a quilting frame.”

Then twenty-seven and single, Furman was refurbishing her new home when she unearthed the journals.

“I found twenty-three little books of different sizes and kinds, none bigger than five by two-and-a-half inches. Some with paper or canvas covers, some leather, they were almanac diaries and all seemed to be pencil-written in the same hand, with only a few lines per entry. I was too impatient to give more than a cursory reading to the last year of the group.

She noticed in many of the entries the phrase “I done what I could.”

“The diaries were dense with a life I was trying to shove aside to make the place my own,” she explained. “The tools in the shed and the worktable in the garage, the barn with its evidence of an active farm life, the stone fences and the orchards — all testified to a past life made by human beings, but I didn’t want to acknowledge the people.”

Furman wanted the property to be her story, so she packed the diaries away. “I didn’t forget ‘I done what I could,’” she emphasized. “For the first five years I lived in the house, I also did what I could.”

She began transcribing the books about ten years after she moved to Texas. Then herself a wife and mother, like the author of the old diaries, Furman became intrigued by them.

“My original impatience was replaced by curiosity and the sense that in removing the diaries from their original place and claiming ownership to them, I had taken them — and the discovery of the diarist’s true identity — on as a moral obligation I had to fulfill.”

Curiosity and imagination were now compelling her.

“The element of ‘What if’ is strong in all writers,” Furman underscored. “Some writers work with concepts and develop their work logically and methodically from their ‘what ifs’ while for other writers the ‘what ifs’ are personal, based on character and psychology.”

The little chronicles became Furman’s inspiration.

“The language of the diary was simple, direct, concrete, and yet a little beautiful, a little mysterious.”

A quote from her “what if” read thus:
March 1874 Monday, 2
It is a bright clear day
And thaws very fast
The Blue Birds come today

“Reading the diaries was like beginning in the middle of a many-volume nineteenth-century family chronicle, with no guide to names, ages, or places.”

The name “Mary Ann Rathbun” was written on each little book.

“Was she a girl or a woman?” Furman wondered. “Was Father the father of the diarist, her husband or brother? Who were Hiram and Alta, Annie and Eunicy, Lois and Piney, Jennie and Lewis Henry? Were the children mentioned her own or grandchildren or visitors?”

“I found in the diaries a world that was placid yet eventful, stoical, and focused on daily events and small accomplishments,” Furman mused. “She noted the return of the bluebirds and bobolinks.”

In the diaries are details of the men’s activities: trips to Troy to sell produce and butter, bringing in loads of hay or wood, killing the pigs and turkeys. Mary Ann Rathbun recorded calls by neighbors, visits by relatives, deaths.

“On the last day of 1876, she wrote ‘Good bye old year,’” Furman said. “The women’s suffrage movement was growing, and psychoanalysis was being developed by Sigmund Freud. Gertrude Stein was born in 1874.”

Mary Ann Rathbun and her family in Washington County were apparently unaware of European — as well as American — high culture though, Furman observed.

“Their lives were agrarian, home-based, dependent on the labor of the family and the production of raw materials for much of their food and clothing,” Furman explained. “She never expressed a desire to travel beyond her small world. Some of her children migrated west across the country. Mary Ann does not seem to have traveled even to Albany.”

Because the diaries had no self-analysis in them, Furman had to ponder their contents.

“We each find meaning as we can, and different meanings at different moments,” she said. Furman wondered why Mary Ann wrote down daily events.

“Her life was full of labor and responsibility,” Furman pointed out. “Was the diary-writing a pleasurable contrast or a duty? It is not a confessional diary, not an obvious source of comfort or confidence, but a continuing record of a life filled with small events and much labor. She was not alone in writing a diary in a small almanac book — there was a late nineteenth-century fad for such diary-keeping, but fads are usually dropped long before a year has passed.”

Were the diaries were ever meant to be read? Furman wondered about that.

“The nature of Mary Ann Rathbun’s long, hard work was ephemeral — food is eaten, a clean house becomes dirty, clothes and quilts tear or are discarded. By recording the ephemera, Mary Ann creates something permanent. Her writing was an act of concentration that we today might call meditation.”

Can Rathbun’s diaries be termed literature though? Furman doesn’t think so.

“One reason we read literature is to learn how to face life’s greatest and smallest difficulties,” Furman said, noting that Rathbun’s diaries are not consciously formed, and are neither artful nor argued. “Still, her diaries are proof of the way one woman lived. What she accomplished by writing her diaries is an embodiment of her time and place, bonded in family, community, and daily purpose.”

Furman finally returned to Washington County and unearthed many small facts about Rathbun’s life and times. She then faced the dilemma of what to do with all her research: “Lots of characters and settings, and lots of information,” as she put it. Furman almost knew too much for “artful fiction” to emerge.

“I would start to write and then backtrack to crowbar in some facts and explanations,” she reminisced. “Each sentence spread like water. There were no boundaries because it seemed so important to be accurate, to be correct, about the Rathbuns, the diary, the place.”

In fact, it took Furman many more years to create The Mother Who Stayed: Stories, as she had imagined a novel arising from the diaries she had found.

“The hardest thing I had to do was to forget all of my research.”

Finally in 2006, at an artists’ residence in Saratoga Springs, NY, she picked up all her notes, books, maps, and genealogy and plunked them down into a pile on the opposite end of the glassed-in porch where she wrote. Then she went back to her desk and sat down at her computer to write what would become a short story called “The Blue Birds Come Today.”

“There are no explanations, no chatty footnote-like expository passages that to my horror I’d been writing for years,” Furman recalled. ”It is mostly Mary Ann’s account of 1874 but in my sequence. I wrote with all the knowledge I had both about Mary Ann Rathbun’s life and about writing fiction. As I wrote, I knew that this was the way to go. What a relief after years of the wrong way.”

After Furman created the novel she had imagined, she broke it up into a trio of three stories each, with the nine pieces set in both upstate New York in the nineteenth century and in the present time. The result is The Mother Who Stayed: Stories, which includes a reading group guide and author Q & A.

“Nothing was lost,” Furman mused. “Without my years of research, I wouldn’t have known what to leave out. Perhaps that’s the best summary I can make of the experience of researching and writing about Mary Ann Rathbun’s diaries. The art of not saying. The art of leaving unsaid. And also a reminder from my late friend Hortense Calisher: ‘Posit an intelligent reader.’”

How did Furman accomplish that?

“In each trio,” she said, “the reader fills in the blanks, takes note of the contradictions and the lies, and puts together a recognizable pattern. In the pattern is the whole work of which the stories are a part. My slog in pursuit of facts led me back to my imagination and to my freedom to decide what stayed in and what was left out.”

One thing Furman did not leave out, however, was the name of the diarist.

“I wanted Mary Ann to have her say, even if it was only in my ephemera.”

Writers of memoir will find much food for thought in this book. It is almost a metamemoir, in which the author has taken someone else’s diaries, let them inform her own memories, and then used her imagination to create fiction — splendid observant fiction. Knowledge of the backstory before reading The Mother Who Stayed: Stories grounds this collection in reality. Furman’s openness in discussing her writing methods offers memoirists a way to evaluate their own.

There are many routes that lead to the past, and various itineraries for the journey. Memoir travelers who occasionally seek out new means of transportation will find the excursion a mind-opening one — particularly if they travel light and learn “the art of leaving unsaid.”

NOTE: The Mother Who Stayed: Stories is available both in a Kindle version as well as print.

memoir, memoir writing, memoir book review

memoir, memoir book review, memoir writingLanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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