Terry Tempest Williams’ Memoir Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on September 19, 2017

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #115 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Matilda Butler

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

by Terry Tempest Williams

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone,
and the earth itself belongs to no one!”
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Discourse, Part Two

The Hour of Land, which came out in hardcover a year ago to mark the National Park Service centennial, is now in paperback. A lot has happened in the past year, and Terry Tempest Williams addresses those events in this new edition published July 3. She adds an Afterword urging readers to “hold the ground.

If this is a book about national parks though, why is it on Women’s Memoirs? Take a closer look at that subtitle. See the word “personal” there, next to the word “topography”? This volume is not a description of structure with a geographic mapping of surface features inside. When you notice the author’s name—well, that should make it clear: You’re in for a lyrical look at landscape through a memoir lens written by a national treasure.

Williams visited twenty of our sixty national parks and selected twelve for this book of essays. She begins The Hour of Land with her focus: “Language and landscape are my inspiration.” She combines memoir, poetry, reporting, interviewing, and research into a heartfelt plea to protect our common grounds. The book was in the longlist for a 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. The Washington Post also named it a Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year for 2016.

Terry Tempest WilliamsWhen Williams spoke about The Hour of Land at Austin’s BookPeople on July 20, she explained she thought it would be an easy book to write—but then it became way beyond what she’d imagined. “I’m not a lawyer, not an archaeologist, not a scientist. Every writer has to ask: By what authority do I write this book? My authority is as a storyteller.”

Her expertise in this realm is well established. Williams has written fourteen other books. One of her best known is Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991), published in a 10th Anniversary Edition with a New Afterword in 2001. It also blends memoir with a description of territory. Her most recent book prior to The Hour of Land came out in 2012: When Women Were Birds (which I reviewed for Richard Gilbert’s Draft No. 4). It’s a memoir using her mother’s empty journals to explore voice—in writing and otherwise.

Terry Tempest WilliamsWilliams told her Austin audience that most of the national parks in the United States are under siege because they sit on oil and gas reserves. “This is what we’re up against.” In her book, she wrote, “Water wars will make oil wars obsolete.” She explained in Texas that our national parks were born out of war. “Lincoln began them. He realized their beauty could bring a divided country back together.” She spoke of Bears Ears National Monument: “two buttes that appear on the horizon. This is where the bones of our ancestors are buried.” She spoke movingly of Big Bend. “Really? We’re going to build a wall here? I don’t think it will happen.”

Williams is quite passionate in both her writing and her speech. She posed a compelling question to her rapt listeners: “Will the open space of democracy be kept open?” I noticed tears starting to spring from her eyes. Quickly a BookPeople employee brought Williams a box of tissues. A number of audience members were wiping away tears as well.

The Hour of Land itself is elegant in its aura, thanks to Abby Kagan, design director at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The paper feels soft against fingers as they turn the pages. The inside cover flap is extra wide—three inches front and back. The 6.2×8.2” size fits neatly in the hand yet still offers pages large enough to showcase the twenty-five stunning black-and-white photos by renowned photographers such as Sally Mann, Lukas Felzman, Ansel Adams, Jonathan Stuart, Richard Avedon, Robert Adams, and Lee Friedlander. The images, placed next to the words by Williams, create an emotional landscape. Different lines from the poem “WE” by Jorie Graham introduce each chapter.

Williams was a 2014-2015 Mellon Fellow and won a Lannan Literary Award in 1993. She will be writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School during the coming academic year. Williams has given a number of keynote addresses, one of the most recent at New Hampshire’s Annual Land Conservation Conference in April, titled “Natural History, Ecological Justice, and the Hour of Land.”

We can view memoir as an autobiography, a chronicle, an historical account, a journal, an essay, a diary, a personal record—or “a personal topography” of the protected areas of our country. Call it what you will, memoir can enhance a wide variety of subjects. Terry Tempest Williams used memoir in The Hour of Land to tell eloquent stories about unfurrowed soil, underscoring Woody Guthrie’s point: “This land was made for you and me.”


New York: Picador (Paperback: July 3, 2017).

A Sarah Crichton Book/Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Hardcover: May 31, 2016).

$18.00 paperback (ISBN 978-1250132147), 416 pages. Also available as ebook.


Lanie TankardLanie Tankard is a freelance writer, editor, researcher, and reviewer in Austin, Texas. A former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and taught writing at Texas State University. Tankard is Indie Book Reviewer for The Woven Tale Press. Her reviews also appear regularly in World Literature Today.


Photo credits: All photos of Terry Tempest Williams by Elaine F. Tankard. Photo of Lanie Tankard by Cathy Heck.

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