In this superb memoir, the bestselling author of In Country and other award-winning books tells her own story, and the story of a Kentucky farm family, the Masons of Clear Springs. Like Russell Baker's Growing Up, Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain, and other classic literary memoirs, Clear Springs takes us back in time to recapture a way of life that has all but disappeared, a country culture deeply rooted in work and food and family, in common sense and music and the land. Clear Springs is also an American woman's odyssey, exploring how a misfit girl who dreamed of distant places grew up in the forties, fifties, and sixties, and fulfilled her ambition to be a writer.
A multilayered narrative of three generations--Bobbie Ann Mason, her parents and grandparents--Clear Springs gracefully interlaces several different lives, decades, and locales, moving from the industrious life on a Kentucky farm to travels around the South with Mason as president of the Hilltoppers Fan Club; from the hippie lifestyle of the 1960s New York counterculture to the shock-therapy ward of a mental institution; from a farmhouse to the set of a Hollywood movie; from pop music concerts to a small rustic schoolhouse. Clear Springs depicts the changes that have come to family, to women, and to heartland America in the twentieth century, as well as to Bobbie Ann Mason herself. When the movie of Mason's bestselling novel In Country is filmed near Clear Springs, it brings the first limousines to town, even as it brings out once again the wisdom and values of Mason's remarkable parents. Her mother, especially, stands at the center of this book. Mason's journey leads her to a recognition of the drama and significance of her mother's life and to a new understanding of heritage, place, and family roots.
Brilliant and evocative, Clear Springs is a stunning achievement.
Readers of Mason's fiction may have wondered whether the white, working class, small-town Kentucky she depicts is real or "made up." This memoir makes clear that her work is deeply rooted in her own experience. When Mason first left Clear Springs to attend college, she felt ashamed of being from the South, fearing that people might see her as "a walking, mute mannequin of Southern Gothic horror in high heels and a beehive--or worse, a baton twirler with a police dog." Gradually, she learned to accept her roots; this book is a loving embrace of that place and its people and a richly textured portrait of a rapidly disappearing way of life. However, those looking for deep psychological insight will not find it here. Nor will this memoir make Mason's family stop speaking to her: her attitude is that of an appreciative and respectful daughter. Although not all the characters are angelic, she finds reasons, if not justification, for even the alternately weak and controlling behavior of the mother-in-law who nearly ruined her beloved mother's life. In the first half of the book, Mason uses luxurious, larruping (Kentuckian for good enough to eat) language to evoke the sounds, taste, smells and sights of early childhood. In the second, weaker part, Mason helps her aging mother, Christy, move off the family farm into town, asks her questions and listens to her silences, hints and memories, out of which Mason constructs a version of how her mother, grandmother and great grandparents may have experienced various events in their lives. The resulting narrative, a somewhat tentative mixture of fiction and social history, is still compelling, but the prose never quite gels. Though Mason's strong grounding makes this memoir absorbing, it also prevents it from taking off in a risky, free-floating flight.