Anyone who intuits what “crazy mother-bonding” is before picking up Wishing for Snow will approach the book in one of two ways: either the reader will have to put the book aside and take time to cry, to reminisce, to self-flagellate, to send another insufficient Hallmark card home; or, the reader will read the book voraciously, in one or two sittings, knowing precisely how the narrative will go, because the reader has already, in some degrees, followed the trajectory him or herself. I responded to the text both ways, spending several excruciating yet beautiful days with Gwin’s elegant, wrenching prose before finishing the last half of the memoir in a few hours that cannot be called cathartic—too many questions remain, both for Gwin and her sympathetic reader, at the close of Wishing for Snow. But they are questions that should remain, and Gwin leaves her reader with new passion about the bonds between mother and child—particularly Southern mothers and their daughters—and a new interest in how the people who shape us the most have the power at once to drive, to determine, and to destroy us.
Wishing for Snow is not exactly Gwin’s own memoir. Rather, it is a memoir of her mother that glimpses toward the lives of people touched by Erin Taylor Clayton Pitner, who was a Mississippi-born child, twice married wife, abusive mother, poet, green bean-obsessed anorexic, and certifiable mental patient. These broad and stereotypical terms do not, however, even approximate who Erin was, and Gwin deliberately shows how Erin’s different identities made it at times impossible for Gwin to recognize Erin in the artifacts she left behind—the letters, the poems, the youthful diary entries, the rotten meat, even the memories.
Hearing Gwin describe first her mother’s failure to sew a dress for her (the seams split with every movement she made, and her mother pulled the dress off her, reproaching her for being careless, when she came home from school) and then her mother’s late-learned interest in sewing bedroom slippers, one receives a full sense of Erin’s inability to make things fit together, to stop the seams from coming undone: after she learned to sew slippers from two washcloths, elastic, and a large safety pin, she made hundreds of slippers and gave them away, keeping track of the gifts by keeping “charts and graphs of people and years and sizes so she’d know whose slippers were wearing out and when she needed to save the day.” Could a slipper have ever saved the day? Could a better dress?
By organizing Wishing for Snow around entries from her mother’s childhood journal, which form alternating chapters and become intertwined with Gwin’s own accounts as well as her interspersions of Erin’s poems, Gwin finds the perfect structure for her story. By twice writing into the text a letter scratched on an envelope—“Dear Minrose, I wanted to be free like you but I just can’t get past that writer’s block. Lots of love, Mama”—Gwin foregrounds intergenerational tensions between women, and she leads the reader to understand that “writer’s block” is something every woman wrestling with “crazy mother-bonding” must learn to overcome, or she will (like Gwin) break down during exercise classes to the sounds of the Beatles.
Wishing for Snow addresses the complicated nuances of love without every descending to sugarcoated sentimentalism—and without allowing anyone (herself included) to be free from guilt, implication, or accountability. Gwin’s memoir brings her beyond the boundaries of academic writing and into conversation with authors from Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor to Doris Betts, Gail Godwin, Janisse Ray, and Dorothy Allison. Her book is one that demands to be read.
of Gwin’s recent works include The Woman in the Red Dress: Gender,
Space, and Reading; The Literature of the American South
edited with William L. Andrews (W.W. Norton, 1997); Black and White
Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature,
and The Feminine and Faulkner: Reading (Beyond)
She taught for a year at SUNY-Binghamton and eleven years at the University
of Mexico before joining the faculty of Purdue University in 2002.
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