From Dillard: a more tolerant, childlike voice

An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard. New York: Harper & Row, 255 pp. $17.95. It's difficult to forget Annie Dillard's crippled moth.

It first appeared some 13 years ago, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.'' In that collection of prose essays about the seasonal changes that occurred in her corner of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Dillard also wrote about a momentous experience from her childhood. A friend had trapped a huge Polyphemus moth in a too-small Mason jar, and Annie had watched in horror one day as the moth emerged from its cocoon and tried - unsuccessfully - to unfold its wings. In ``Pilgrim'' she described how, once loosed from the jar, the moth ``heaved ... down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees.''

Now, seven books later, the moth has returned. But Dillard now recalls that the moth was in fact ``crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born.''

Three cheers for the moth. And three cheers, too, for Annie Dillard's changing perceptions.

``An American Childhood'' displays the kind of probing and prying that Dillard's devotees have always applauded as cosmologically inspired and that her detractors have put down as dense and enigmatic. But there's a new voice here - a perspective that's both more mature in its tolerance and more childlike in its lack of artifice.

``An American Childhood'' is funny, too, thrusting beyond the glimmers of irony and bright shafts of wit that have long been Dillard trademarks, into near-slapstick. Consider this recollection of the telephone training that Annie and her sister, Amy, received at their mother's hands:

``When we children were young, she mothered us tenderly and dependably; as we got older, she resumed her career of anarchism. She collared us into her gags. If she answered the phone on a wrong number, she told the caller, `Just a minute,' and dragged the receiver to Amy or me, saying, `Here, take this, your name is Cecile,' or, worse, just, `It's for you.' You had to think on your feet....''

The autobiographical parade begins in 1950, when Annie was 5. As she recounts the tribulations of growing up Presbyterian and proud in Pittsburgh, she writes with great affection about firing gravel bits from a slingshot her mother gave her, floating Popsicle sticks down curbside rivulets, and throwing snowballs at passing cars. On one page she plays the consummate tomboy: ``The attic bedroom where I drew my baseball mitt was a crow's nest, a treehouse, a studio, an office, a forensic laboratory, and a fort.'' On the next, she goes dutifully off to Sunday School and dancing school - in white gloves, no less.

One is tempted to question the amount of detail Dillard recalls, virtually verbatim, from a once-read book or a long-ago conversation, and one could wish she had expanded the section of the book that deals with the unexpected rage that burst upon her in adolescence. But those criticisms seem beside the point when one considers the true-to-life impressions of early childhood that she has crafted here.

``Parents pause at the unnecessary beauty of an ice storm coating the trees,'' she jibes at one point. Children, she notes, ``look for something to throw.''

Diane Manuel is a free-lance book reviewer.

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