Some memoirs look deeply inward, examining how the self is formed in the crucible of the world. Susan Straight's "In the Country of Women" works in the opposite way: Addressed to the author's three daughters, this is a book that spirals outward, gathering and illuminating stories of ancestors, family and community. It's a book with more people in it than an encyclopedia — so many that it can be difficult to keep track of everyone — and its universe of people and stories is complex, layered and ultimately ravishing.
Straight, the author of eight novels, is a Californian. Her people are working-class women, many times married, mothering their own children and those of others, living among lemon groves and tumbleweeds and Santa Ana winds. "I wanted," she writes, "to write about us."
Her "us" includes the family of ex-husband Dwayne Sims, her high school sweetheart and father of her daughters. She is white, he is black. Straight recalls a graduate school classmate sneeringly asking her in a workshop, "Why do you keep writing about all these working-class people?" Writing these families' stories, in the context of U.S. history, politics and literary taste, is itself a radical act.
Among the book's great characters are Dwayne's foremothers.
They include women such as Fine, born during Reconstruction, orphaned at 6, taken by a white family, growing up dirt poor and bearing three children as a teenager. "There was inside her a core of fury and independence and self-preservation, the genetic heritage of survival," Straight writes. There was Daisy, born in Mississippi, whose mother was run down by a car driven by white men — at the last second, Daisy's mother threw her 5-year-old daughter out of harm's way. "Violence like that enters the blood," Straight writes. "Changes the DNA."
Straight's family tree has its own strong women — a strict Swiss nurse, sisters who left the Colorado prairie to travel west (in this book, everyone ends up going west). Still, it's the black women, including her own daughters, that this book celebrates. When Dwayne first brought her home, a skinny white girl, Straight writes that she "felt the stares of amusement, protective suspicion and sidelong glances." But his mother, Alberta, shepherded her inside to make a plate, and in time she grew to belong to this sprawling black family, to take her place among the aunties who oversee all the younger generations.
As the mother of three black daughters, she learned to do their 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," she writes. While other white women failed to understand, caring for her daughter's beautiful curls "was the truest part of my existence as a mother."
"They never tell us about the odysseys of women," Straight writes in the prologue. "In the Country of Women" offers a corrective, providing a boldly woman-centric view of history, as large as migration and as small as the act of braiding a child's hair. It's a book about survival, motherhood and love, and it's as big and messy and beautiful as all of these things.
Kate Tuttle is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.