Nonfiction Picks from Joy Neal Kidney and Gwen Wilson

I’ve been reading instead of writing lately. Today I want to share two of the nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed.

Book #1 is biographical and historical nonfiction based on the author’s family history.

A year and a half ago I reviewed Joy Neal Kidney’s nonfiction book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. That book opened my eyes to the “home front” during WWII—what the war was like for some American families. Joy’s family, in particular, suffered great loss as three of her grandparents’ sons died in battle.

Joy has a new book out called Leora’s Dexter Stories. The subtitle, “The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression,” gives an idea of what story lies inside. It’s also an understatement. This book uses a variety of sources, such as journals and family stories to piece together a heart-breaking account of the poverty experienced by the Wilson family during the Depression.

Too bad this book can’t be required reading of every American and every student in American schools so that we learn not only what hardships people went through during that time but also how hardworking, clever, and resilient they could be. Our ideas of recycling and repurposing today are a joke compared with what Leora, Clabe, and their children did to survive. For awhile the only thing that kept them from being homeless was when the two oldest sons joined the Navy and sent money home to the family. The family endured criticism and gossip from others because of the need to sometimes be on a form of relief, although they worked very hard as tenant farmers or in other jobs. I managed to hold off crying until daughter Doris, Joy’s mother, an amazing basketball star, had to leave her full-scholarship business college because she couldn’t afford rent. This book is a powerful tribute to the Wilson family.

 You can find Joy here: JOYNEALKIDNEY.COM

Book #2 is a coming-of-age and family dysfunction memoir, set in Australia.

Australian Gwen Wilson, writer of the blog Garrulous Gwendoline, has published a memoir called I Belong to No One. On the cover it also reads: “One woman’s true story of family violence, forced adoption and ultimate triumphant survival.” I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started to read, but I was immediately hooked by Gwen’s storytelling voice. As you might expect from a woman who bills herself on WordPress as “garrulous” and says in the memoir that one of her favorite words is loquacious, Gwen’s voice expertly tells her story and imparts her personality. Her voice is strong, confident, and positive because so is the woman telling the story of her childhood and youth. She also comes across as humble and sincere. This is the successful, mature adult looking back at her upbringing. And while she was clearly always very emotionally strong and generally positive, she was not always confident because the life experiences she went through from a young age tried to grind her down. But Gwen didn’t let them keep her down. Whenever she could catch a lucky break, she would run with it. Finally, she caught one in the form of a job in the shipping world and was able to move forward with her adult life.

Nevertheless, with Gwen’s muscular and straightforward prose, the majority of the story details what she had to overcome. Legally, she was raised by a single, mentally ill mother who was not capable of parenting her. But in reality, Gwen was raised by her older brother Steve and a series of surrogate moms in the form of neighbors, aunts, and friends’ mothers. This patched-together group of “moms” are where Gwen learned how to be a woman. The topics covered from Gwen’s first person perspective include domestic abuse, illegitimacy (in a time when that really mattered), forced adoption, child neglect, poverty, and rape. The rape scene and how it was handled afterward should be mandatory reading for anyone who is unsure of the #metoo movement. It reminds me of how things were when I was young (so we need to remember that we have made some improvements in society and law regarding rape). Gwen truly had nobody to turn to—and no rape crisis centers as they hadn’t been invented yet.

Gwen’s descriptions of her homes and the people in her life are carefully and wonderfully drawn. I find it difficult to move from under the spell of her story and back into my own life. Gwen was born the same year as memoirist Mary Karr. There are similarities in topics, but Australia in the 60s and 70s was much different than the United States. And Gwen had less advantages than Mary Karr had. But anybody who found The Liar’s Club or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle fascinating will find Gwen’s book just as hard to put down.

I hope to have reviews of a couple more books next week!


Felix update: First we went through the exact same disappointment at a different ultrasound facility on Tuesday–it was another screw-up and they sent us home. However, the next day he had his ultrasound. It showed a liver tumor, enlarged lymph nodes in his abdomen, and other smaller issues. I haven’t been able to talk to his regular vet after she got a copy of the report but we did speak briefly and hypothetically. It’s unlikely that we will put him through more testing as it would be traumatic to him and probably to no avail. But a decision has not yet been made. If we don’t do more testing, we will provide hospice for him at home. I have started giving him subq fluids (under the skin with a needle) once a day, as well as several meds. The internist who performed the ultrasound was so impressed with Felix’s chill personality. He really is the epitome of a “good boy.”


Filed under #writerlife, Book Review, Cats and Other Animals, Family history, History, Memoir, Reading

47 responses to “Nonfiction Picks from Joy Neal Kidney and Gwen Wilson

  1. Great reviews! Summer is a good time for reading books…but then, so is every season! Wishing you summertime hours full of good books and happy moments…

  2. So sorry about Felix. I know you will give him a great ending to his journey.

  3. Amy

    I really liked Joy’s first book and will definitely look for this one. The other one also sounds really interesting.

    But I am mostly so sad about Felix. I am so sorry.

  4. I hope Felix is at least comfortable. Gwen’s book deserves to be a classic.

  5. I agree with you about the required reading comment. This is the kind of thing kids should be made aware of. It’s not all about ME, ME, ME.

  6. Bless you for your review of “Leora’s Dexter Stories.” I created short chapters so that high schoolers can read it readily, but find that adults appreciate that too. Gwen’s memoir sounds so honest. Thank you for reviewing that one as well. Prayers for Felix and all of you. A tough journey.

  7. The books sound interesting. Poor Felix (and you.) 😔

  8. Oh, Luanne, I’m so sad for you and Felix. I know you’ll keep him as comfy as possible. I’m with you on refusing intensive invasive procedures. Quality of life is what matters, especially when you can’t turn back the clock 🙁
    Thanks for the book reviews. Both books sound so engrossing.
    Sending you and Felix good vibes and positive energy <3

  9. Thank you for posting two excellent reviews. I’ve bought Leora’s Dexter Stories, and I look forward to reading it. I also read Leora’s Letters, which was heartbreaking, even though I knew how it would end. Since following Joy’s blog, I’ve become a great admirer of Leora. I would love to have known her.

    I’m very sorry to hear about Felix’s diagnosis. I know that you will make his remaining time with you happy and comfortable.

  10. Thank you so much Luanne for your thoughtful review, and especially for giving so generously of your time when you are going through this terribly sad and worrying journey with Felix.

  11. I will keep you and Felix in my prayers. God bless.

  12. Thanks for the book reviews.
    I’m so sorry that Felix is so ill. What a sad, difficult time.

  13. Reblogged this on The Reluctant Retiree and commented:
    Many thanks to Luanne Castle for reading and reviewing my memoir I BELONG TO NO ONE. It was wonderful to receive her thoughts and feedback.

  14. Luanne, thanks for these in-depth reviews. They sound like the type of books I like to read. I’m reading Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald at the moment, and I’m loving her writing style. It’s a novel, but semi-autobiographical as well.
    I’m so sorry about Felix. Hugs!

  15. Such wonderful, detailed reviews! I too find most memoirs fascinating!
    Poor Felix! Poor you! I hope he doesn’t suffer too much. 💞

  16. There’s so much we don’t understand about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, surviving on nothing. Leora’s Dexter Stories sounds pretty good.

  17. I’m sorry to hear about Felix and hope all goes gently for you both. I’ve been there with my last dog. She kept leading me to the emergency Vets office on our walks. Right to the door! She knew what I didn’t want to know. 10 years later and I still miss her.I have her favorite ball and the tin where her ashes were on a shelf with her picture. Some people never get why we go to great lengths to keep them with us. I love memoir and this one sounds like another great one. I don’t get to read during the summer. Too darn much work to do. Hang in there.

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