Updated: Oct 9, 2021
by Sara Voigt (@meaningfulmadness)
If you listen to the pod, you know I love a good memoir. We have talked about Ruth Wariner's The Sound of Gravel (Amazon | Bookshop.org) several times on the show, and I thought I would share my complete review of this fantastic memoir. In fact, I would say that this book is the book that lit the fire for my love of memoirs and my compulsion to read as many as I can get my hands on.
Written by Ruth Wariner (known predominantly as Ruthie in the book), this book chronicles Ruthie's life with her family in a polygamist colony in Mexico. Ruth and her siblings live in poverty with her mother and her stepfather (who is shared between multiple wives) in a house that is barely livable. Several times during the book, Ruthie remarks on the smell of mouse feces that greets her when she steps into the house in Mexico. For some reason, the mention of this smell several times throughout the book really made an impact on me and my comprehension of the circumstances relevant to Ruthie's existence in the colony. Ruthie's mom, Kathy, another key player in the novel, is the catalyst in the trajectory of Ruthie's life throughout the course of the novel. As a reader, Kathy's role in Ruthie's life circumstances is the most frustrating and compelling portion of the novel.
“As I pulled the covers up and let Micah settle in next to me, I heard Mom’s voice in my ears: Children need to get used to being in the dark. She’d repeated that countless times throughout my childhood. No, I thought, they don’t.”
While this memoir is so opposite from anything that I have ever known, I found myself at times fascinated by the sense of community fostered in this colony, and at times repulsed by that same sense of community. The standouts for me were Ruthie's relationship with her mother and her relationships with her siblings. Ruthie's relationship with her mother, which is at times difficult, is a testament to the love between mother and daughter no matter what the circumstances.
“I knew that my life would never be happy if all it amounted to was having several children by a shared husband. I couldn't understand how love or adoration could be possible in that kind of arrangement, and I desperately wanted those. But I also knew that it wasn't enough to want them. You had to know how to get them. Mom couldn't teach me that because she didn't know herself. She couldn't show me how to be happy, only how to barely survive."
At times heartbreaking and raw, ultimately, this is a story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit. Ruth Wariner's story is reminiscent of Jeannette Wall's story in The Glass Castle. Fans of Wall's story are certain to love and relate to Wariner's story.
A true page-turner, this book provides the framework for rich discussion on complex characters and situations. If you are looking for a non-fiction pick for your book club, consider this one. It is largely driven by its narrative merit, but is a great study of the ability of a person to rise above the lot that has been prescribed for him/her/them. Give it a read if you like narrative-driven non-fiction.
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