Friday, May 13, 2011

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

At the recommendation of my advisor, I checked this book out of the library. Annie Dillard is a well-known nature writer who won the Pulitzer Prize at 27. This memoir is about her childhood growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

Dillard explores her young life from about the age of five to her early teens. The oldest of three girls, and the child of two eccentric parents, she traces her changing interests and growing consciousness in these formative years. From her description of the mysterious creature floating across her walls at night (the light from passing cars she would later realize), to her obsession with the microscope she received for Christmas one year, to discovering boys, religion, people, Dillard's story of her childhood is rich with detail.
Not all the chapters are perfectly chronological, but are more arranged by subject. In spite of the many decades between my own childhood and Dillard's I found it easy to connect to her process of discovery and growing up. She has a knack for zeroing in on those significantly insignificant moments that shape thinking and perspective in a child's life.
Beyond the easy, metaphor-rich writing style, the book is also full of humor. Dillard's mother had a tendency toward practical jokes and Dillard's description of her odd habits and use of her children as straight-men will likely gain at least a smile from readers. Other incidents also stand out: Dillard describes throwing snowballs at passing cars with the neighborhood boys in winter. On one occasion a man stopped his car, got out, and chased Dillard and a friend. The anecdotes all blend seamlessly into one narrative about the process of growing up.
All in all, it's an excellent memoir. Great for a lazy afternoon. Dillard's style is accesible, but not dumbed down. I will certainly be reading more of her work in the future.

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