Monthly Archives: September 2019

Chasing Eden, by Cherilyn Christen Clough

I’m always interested in a good memoir, especially one that explores how a woman’s life journey interacts with faith and spirituality, both for better and for worse. Chasing Eden is just such a book: a memoir about a young woman growing up in a family controlled by a father who constantly moved his family around in search of the ideal, Edenic place in which to wait out the End Times – hence the title. Along the way, a few things got neglected, like giving the four kids any stability, security, regular meals, electricity and running water, a social life with kids their own age, a sense of community and — most painful for the eldest child Cherie, the author of this book — any formal education.

As is sadly all too common among off-the-grid, survivalist, often religious-extremist families who pull their kids out of the “corrupting” influence of public (and sometimes even Christian) schools, Cherie and her siblings were told to tell people they were being homeschooled. But there were no homeschooling texts (and precious few books at all, it seems) in their home, no curriculum was followed nor was even the most rudimentary attempt made to teach the kids anything except some housekeeping and manual-labour skills. The fact that Cherie not only managed to eventually get a GED but became the articulate, thoughtful writer of this engaging and compelling memoir must be almost a literal miracle when you realize how huge the gaps in her education were.

It’s impossible not to compare this book to Tara Westover’s Educated, and many readers have done so. Here’s a relevant paragraph I wrote in my review of Westover’s book:

Westover’s family are Mormon. If there’s one thing Mormons have in common with Seventh-day Adventists (apart from being mid-19th century American religious movements founded by prophets, not drinking coffee, and often being confused with each other) it’s that while the majority of church members live fairly mainstream lives indistinguishable from most middle-class churchgoing folks, there’s something in the religion that leads a tiny fringe element to go off the grid and off the rails. I never met any of these types of Adventists when I was growing up in Newfoundland, but we heard legends of them in other parts of the country and sure enough when I ventured out of my small and cozy world I ran into SDAs who were anti-government, anti-vaxxing, anti-everything homeschoolers who were prepping for the End Times by stocking their basement with canned goods and whatnot. So it’s easy for me to understand how the wider (and much more mainstream) Mormon community as depicted in this book simply accepts the Westover family as being a little extreme but still basically OK-ish, without anyone probing too deeply into what’s really going on out in their remote rural junkyard. 

Cherilyn Clough’s family were Seventh-day Adventists, as I am, and what happens in the book when they attend local Adventist churches and (briefly) schools is exactly what I described above, and exactly what happened to Westover’s family within the Mormon community. Nobody recognizes how dysfunctional the home situation actually is, partly because the parents are very good at teaching their children to cover up, and partly because of the “Well, some people are just a little more extreme in their beliefs” culture that prevails in both the SDA and LDS communities. “They’re a bit crazy, but they’re still our brothers and sisters in the Lord” seems to be the attitude that often leads our communities (and probably other conservative religious communities too) to turn a blind eye to neglect and even outright abuse.

It’s often painful to read this book and see how neglected these children were and how many opportunities for a better, more stable life were thrown away in service of their father’s relentless pursuit of his religious ideal. It’s even more painful to see the genuine love and warmth young Cherie had for the mother and father who were perpetrating this neglect and abuse — how desperately she wanted to please them. There’s a thread I’ve seen in several memoirs I’ve read about these kinds of family dynamics: the dad is extremely controlling; the mom is initially seen as the more loving and connected parent who is on the side of the kids; over the years the mom’s unwavering loyalty to the dad and her refusal to stand up to him or get the kids out of the situation begins to seem as abusive as the father’s more overt abuse. It’s such a sad cycle to watch play out, whether in a memoir or in real life, and it’s well delineated here.

But this is also a memoir of survival — Cherilyn Christen Clough’s blog, which gained quite a following long before her book came out — is called Little Red Survivor, and the book’s focus, like the website’s, is on resilience and overcoming. It’s the story of a girl who used what she calls her “superpowers” of remembering the past and telling the truth, to escape a situation most of us can’t even imagine.

Chasing Eden doesn’t tell the whole story. It leaves Cherie at the threshold of a new life, ready to step out into adulthood on her own. But at that point in the story, the rest of her family, though certainly not actively supportive of her move, are willing to accept the direction she is taking.

As her blog and her extensive writing about narcissistic families makes it clear, the road forward from that point was by no means easy. When someone finally breaks away from an abusive, controlling environment, they can’t expect to be welcomed back in with open arms — especially when they start telling the truth about what went on at home. Just as intriguing is the question of how a girl from such a background managed to make her way in the outside world, a question left unanswered in the closing pages of Chasing Eden. I hope both those topics will be addressed in a sequel — one that, hopefully, will be as compellingly readable as Chasing Eden is.

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Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

This is a book people have been recommending to me since literally before it was even finished (I first heard about it when author Megan Coles visited my podcast along with Robert Chafe, who made a point of getting her to promote the book she was, at that point, still working on). Everyone I know who’s read it has described themselves as having been overwhelmed or found it breathtaking, even though they also often describe it as “difficult.” And, indeed, the terse and cryptic author warning — “This might hurt a little” — on the page usually reserved for an epigraph, is absolutely a relevant warning for anyone opening the pages of this novel.

The setting is contemporary St. John’s, on a stormy Valentine’s Day when snow, high winds, and rolling blackouts keep most of the sensible townies indoors. The un-sensible ones, in this novel, are largely the staff and patrons of a hipster downtown restaurant called The Hazel. This novel has a large cast of characters, with point of view shifting frequently between them, and the author is not about to spoon-feed the reader any explanations about who these characters are and how they connect with each other. I will admit that I spent a lot of the first third of the book trying to figure out how everyone connects, weaving together the various threads of backstory we are given, and wading through some incredibly complex extended metaphors to get to “Who is this person and how do they relate to the other six people I just read about?”

Once that initial learning curve is mastered, which for me was about one-third of the way through the novel, the pace picks up as we begin to see how all these various characters connect and how their stories will converge on a stormy night in the only restaurant that stays open in the storm.

Violence and power are recurring themes as Coles ruthlessly puts the relationships among this group of people under the microscope. The characters range from nearly-innocent victims to brutal predators (the “hunting” analogy of the title threads throughout the book and is one of the novel’s more successful metaphors), but almost all are portrayed with empathy, thoughtfulness, and nuance, even those who are pretty obviously bad people — we see, at the very least, some of the reasons why they are bad people, or at least the fears and the past experiences that lead them to choose to do bad things, to victimize others.

The only exception (at least among the point-of-view characters) to this compassionate gaze, is the (fictionalized) mayor of St. John’s, who is portrayed as an absolutely cartoon villain without a shred of interest in his humanity, which I thought was an interesting choice, given how many (on the surface) “worse” characters are given at least the dignity of motivations. I don’t think this is in any way accidental: the author may be suggesting that the powerful and wealthy decision makers at the top of society’s pyramid (nearly always rich white men) are truly apex predators of this food chain, and less deserving of our empathy even than rapists and abusers.

Yes, there is rape and abuse in this novel, and both the acts and their aftermath are portrayed with an unflinching and often painful gaze. Remember, we were warned this might hurt a little. It does. A brutal gang-rape is placed next to an apparently consensual affair to show us how, though the two sexual acts are very different, power and powerlessness lie at the core of both. Women, as the narrator tells us in one searing passage, have so very little power. And some women have less power than others — poor women, indigenous women, rural woman, uneducated women, are the ones who, over and over, end up as the small game being hunted here. One passage — it’s hard to tell whether it should be described as the character’s internal monologue or the narrative voice, as it blends both — in which the potential consequences of reporting a rape are considered, is absolutely harrowing to read because we recognize its truth at the core, from the countless times we’ve seen the scenario play out. That passage alone should be required reading for everyone.

It goes without saying that neither the urban St. John’s downtown of the story’s present, nor the rural communities where the characters’ past lives are revealed in flashbacks, bear much resemblance to the tourist-commercial version of what our license plates once called “The Happy Province.” This is the dark underside of our culture, of every culture, and it’s displayed and dissected here in its most raw and relentless form.

Both in subject matter and in style, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is by no means an easy read, but it is one that is worth a reader’s time and attention. I ended up by being unable to put it down.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author

Naturally Tan, by Tan France

Every time I read a celebrity biography, I feel like I have to preface it by pointing out that I don’t read a lot of celebrity bios, and the ones I read tend to be unusual in some way (either the way the book is written, or the celeb themselves) so I feel like it’s a genre I’m not that up on the conventions of. I will absolutely confess that the main reason I used one of my audiobook credits to download a memoir by Tan France, the “fashion guy” on the show Queer Eye, is that I love listening to his voice. Frankly, I would listen to almost anyone from the north of England (as well as anyone Scottish or Irish) read me the dictionary, so a gay Pakistani-British man from the north of England telling me his life story was bound to be something I’d want to listen to, even if I don’t watch every single episode of Queer Eye because it plays into so many of the reality-TV tropes I don’t love. (I find it’s good in small snippets).

In many ways, Naturally Tan is much more like a classic celebrity autobiography than I’m used to — the tone is light and breezy, even when discussing very serious issues, and there are huge chunks of Tan’s story that he just skips lightly over or doesn’t dig into at all (like, he talks about how, because of his cultural background, he knew coming out to his family would be difficult, but he doesn’t actually tell the story of coming out to them or how they responded to it or what his relationship with them is like today. He is married to a man he describes as a “Mormon cowboy” and he obviously values how his Muslim background his husband’s Mormon background fit well together in terms of things like not drinking, and not considering divorce as an option — but doesn’t get into how either of them fit their religious heritage together with their lives as out gay men who would be rejected by a lot of people in both those communities). As is often the case with memoirs I read, the gaps are not really flaws in Tan’s storytelling but just a function of him not telling the exact story I wanted to hear.

The one subject he does get quite serious and even mildly heated about is racism — both the racism he experienced growing up in the UK, and the racism he sees today living in the US. He obviously feels very strongly about the importance of representation of people of colour in the media and sees himself as an ambassador in that role. And, of course, there’s lots of sassy fashion advice, which ranges from the somewhat-useful to the completely ridiculous (I’m no fashion icon, but I don’t think the reason North American women like fit-n-flare style dresses is just because they want to hide their hips, as Tan insists is the case).

If I’d been reading this on the page I might have lost interest with the general “ladies, your sassy gay friend is going to tell you how to dress, date and generally conduct your life” tone sprinkled in amidst the personal life story — but if Tan France is going to read it to me, I consider it a pretty good use of an audiobook credit.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- memoir