Friday, March 08, 2013

When Women Were Birds Book Review for Women's Day

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
by Terry Tempest Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am loving this book. It's a bit of an autobiography, poetically written. The author begins by telling us her mother left her journals for her daughter to read, but asks that she wait until after she's gone. When Terry opens the journals, they are all blank. Every one on three shelves. The author's mother is a Mormon, from Utah, and apparently every good Mormon wife has two duties: to bear children and keep a journal. So this book seeks to uncover the motives behind her keeping them blank, and is also a poetic meditation (in parts) on what her mother's silence meant, and on the meaning of voice.

The author is also a bird watcher, and her grandmother initiated her into the love of birds. She met her husband through this as well. Lots of bird imagery. There's also a chapter about the secret writing of women, a coded calligraphy that only women used in China, to communicate with their life-long friends, which reminded me of the book The Secret Fan.

Some of the book is a bit political: the author is an activist involved in saving the wildlands and red rock area in Utah, and one of her efforts to help out was a putting together a small book of testimonial essays about the land from well-known authors, that helped sway the Congress to reconsider the rewriting of the Utah Public Lands Management act. A whole chapter is devoted to this, which although interesting and part of the author's life, did not add to the poetic text about her search for meaning in her mother's journals, except, I suppose to illustrate her need to find her own voice.

"Mother gave me my voice by withholding hers, both in life and in death."

"My mother's journals are bleached...
My Mother's Journals are clean sheets.
My Mother's Journals are white flags of surrender."

The author explores in layers the meaning of the blank sheets, and tells us in the meantime her own story, her own love affair with birds and words. In the end, she decides, "there is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer." And seems to make peace with the white pages.

It may be an attempt to solve a mystery, but in the writing, we learn lessons about the power of a woman's voice, about mothers and daughters and granddaughters, and about the power of song, and flight.

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