I had a nightmarish image come to mind today. My gravestone popped up right in front of me. On it was carved:
She never met a memoir she didn’t like.
Although I’ve been selecting memoirs to review by pulling books haphazardly off my shelf, maybe I’ve been drawn to choose my favorites. To keep that gravestone from being carved (in the far distant future) with those words, I’m going to share a book I have mixed feelings about.
June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood certainly has the subject matter for an enthralling tale. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Jordan (1936-2002) learned to love literature from her loving and abusive father. She grew up in New York at a time when her life experience covered some dramatic changes in the lives of African- and Caribbean Americans. The book was “A Best Book of 2000” by both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
The details of her memories are those of a poet, and therefore rich and evocative. Her story is personal and specific, but also important as an addition to the voices of People of Color in this country.
But the book has no real sense of being a memoir. The very difficult work of memoir is forging all those bits of one’s life into a compelling narrative. Instead, Jordan catches them like butterflies in a net and lets them flit off each other from one fragment to the next. While I found her life fascinating, I had to struggle to keep the momentum because there was no urgency or tension or cohesion to the story. Maybe that is an overstatement. At least, there wasn’t enough of those elements to satisfy this reader.
I did learn from reading this book. It showed me just how much I want to create a thickly textured and urgent story in my own memoir.
The book would be a wonderful source of material for a biographer of Jordan–or for a literary critic who is writing about the poet. But for an engaging nonfiction read, I would choose a different book.