In Beverly Cleary’s first memoir, she covers her life as a child growing up, first in the rural farming town of Yamhill, Oregon, and later in Portland.
I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a long time, and I’m not quite sure what took me so long to read it. I just recently finished reading the entire Ramona Quimby series out loud with my kids, and we all really loved it. Plus Beverly Cleary is celebrating her 100th birthday in a few short months. I decided to read this in her honor, but also to figure out if Cleary is more of a Ramona or a Beezus.
Long story short, she was a Ramona-esque child, but more of a Beezus in adolescence.
But the answer to my question wasn’t even the most interesting part of this book. This book is a lot of things. It’s the story of a how a young writer was molded in her youth, a story of the Great Depression, and a story about the contentious relationship between a girl and her mother.
Cleary’s desire to figure out her mother is by far the strongest aspect of this book, and that’s good because it takes up about 75% of the space, as her mother loomed large over her life. Cleary’s mother was a confusing woman. She was simultaneously emotionally distant, but very possessive of her daughter. In private she would be endlessly critical of her daughter but publicly brag about her. Cleary remembers so many of her feelings toward her mother so strongly, even from a very young age. (It shows in her Ramona books. The source of the surprising emotional depth in Ramona is very clear.)
This book was published in 1988, when Cleary was seventy-two years old and her mother was still a mystery to her. I’m guessing at the age of ninety-nine, she has no more answers.
We tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. It’s basically why each generation thinks the one behind it is screwed up (hint: That’s not true. The kids are all right. The kids have always been all right). And sometimes those rose-colored glasses lead us to romanticize things like the Great Depression. We talk up the moxie and the work ethic of people during that time period. And I’m not saying that didn’t exist. Cleary manages to respect the moxie of the people suffering, but doesn’t pull punches when she talks about what it was like to be a child of the Depression.
Her father, a quiet stoic man, was a farmer by nature. But he left the farm for more money in Portland, where he worked in security for a bank. It was work he hated. He loathed working indoors, particularly being on his feet for hours on end on a marble floor. And he worked that hard at a job he hated to provide for his family. But rather than painting a romantic picture of this, Cleary is very clear that this had a negative impact on her family. Her father, who was kind and gentle on the farm, became angry and lashed out working for very little money for a bank.
All around, this book is a really wonderful read. While it’s in turn heartbreaking and heartwarming, it’s also a fascinating look at a lot of the minutiae of living in 1920’s and 30’s Oregon. Cleary has an incredible memory for little details, things like what courses were offered in high school, or the boy she sat behind throughout grammar school, that add up to this book being a fascinating period piece.
Even though the book comes in a 344 pages, I’d recommend it to eleven year olds. And while I don’t believe in saying there are ‘girl’ books and ‘boy’ books, (This is going right into my son’s pile because I think he’ll like it when he’s a little older) I think there’s a lot in here that will appeal particularly to girls, especially serious bookish girls.
There’s a sequel to this book, My Own Two Feet, which I plan on looking for next time I’m at the used book store.