From Susan Straight’s kitchen window, she can see the hospital where she was born. “No matter race or wealth or religion or desire, there are people who leave and people who stay. I had to stay,” she writes in her lustrous new memoir, “In the Country of Women.” Had she left, she wrote, “my girls wouldn’t have had the safety and tether and history of our families.”
The book is steeped in that history and sense of place in Riverside, California, populated with citrus groves and pepper trees and burning Santa Ana winds. Straight and her little women, as she calls her three daughters, “knew our homeland as Louisa May Alcott knew Concord and environs.”
Straight has been a storyteller all her life, influenced by James Baldwin, who became her mentor, and by California chronicler Joan Didion. She’s best known as a novelist who focuses on people like her own: “working-class” characters, as a fellow graduate student once described them with a sneer. Turning the lens to her own family and their ancestors, the stories are as rich and resonant as fiction.
“I watched the people move about, descendants of Okies and slaves and braceros and Japanese strawberry farmers. These were the parents of my friends,” she wrote, describing her childhood job in her stepfather’s Laundromat.
“We drank in vacant lots, Boone’s Farm strawberry wine in Lily Tulip cups, near the Lily Tulip plant with its actual giant concrete cup. (The world’s largest paper cup!) Then we married each other, and our children are American babies, despite what some people think.”
The person Straight married was Dwayne Sims, the boy she had met in junior high school and started dating when she was 14 and he was 15. She was an elfin blonde who had spent months in a hospital bed with a snapped femur, he was a 6-foot-4-inch African American basketball player.
When Straight first visits Sims’ home for a family gathering – a mile from where she lived with her Swiss-born mother – she remembers his cousin saying “Oh, hell, no,” when she puts out her hand, while his sister rolls her eyes and turns away. But Alberta, her future mother-in-law, opens the screen door and says “Here she is! Come on inside and get you a plate,” welcoming the teen into the warmth of the home and generosity of her kitchen.
Men are necessarily present in the stories, but Straight is writing the heroine’s journey rather than the hero’s, focusing on characters whose hard-won odysseys are rarely recognized. She tells her daughters how the women who came before them “were, like Odysseus, imprisoned and seduced and threatened with death. They slept with lotus-eaters and escaped monsters like the Cyclops and Charybdis, and sometimes they battled other women who were Sirens or who tried to steal their children. … They shed blood for us.”
Their history is heartrending. There’s Fine, Sims’ great-grandmother, “utterly alone after her enslaved mother died when she was six or seven.” On Straight’s side, there’s the chilling “love at first sight” marriage in which her grandfather warns every man at a country dance not to approach the new young woman in town. “He had a gun in his coat.”
The storyline hopscotches through time and place, leaving the reader wishing at first for a United States map and a genealogy chart. As the characters become more familiar, though, it becomes clearer their stories aren’t meandering lines but rather strands in a braid.
As painful as their histories can be, it’s crushing to see how that pain and prejudice have carried through to the present. A terrifying episode from Straight and Sims’ youth, when police accost them and hold a gun to Sims’ head, is echoed later when they see their daughter’s car pulled over on the way to a birthday party.
“My job is to be the short blond mom,” writes Straight, who intercedes with the officers while fearing for the children’s lives.
“My little women hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously. … They hate that I have to do it, that I am good at it.”
Yet the book is equally filled with beauty and constancy, thanks to Straight’s carefully chosen memories and elegantly clear prose.
She tells about the unwavering appointment she had each Friday night to fix her daughters’ hair: “In our family, and in black communities at large like ours, the care and maintenance of your hair meant more than just barrettes and ponytails; your hair reflected our pride and care and love. Neglected heads displayed for the public a serious lack of all three.”
The long hours with combs and conditioners were never a waste of time, she wrote. “It was the truest part of my existence as a mother.”
When Straight describes the daughters sleeping on sheets in the grass in the summer heat, it’s an Inland Empire fairy tale: “I lay beside them, staring up at the branches of the carob tree and the police helicopter moving like a glittering wasp above us, my daughters murmuring their last questions of the night, and finally falling asleep,” she wrote. “All of us facing the stars.”
In her hands, the girls are heroines like the Alcott or Austen characters they grew up with – or like the non-fiction ancestors whose stories Straight has preserved – young women who know where they came from, and what a big world they’ve inherited.