There's a wince-worthy moment -- one of many in "My Mother Is Now Earth," Mark Anthony Rolo's beautiful, sorrow-laced memoir -- in which a cat that he and his siblings have taken in vanishes into the snowy woods behind their dilapidated farmhouse outside Big Falls, in northern Minnesota's Koochiching County, apparently to find food so she can produce milk for her kittens. The children's father, an unreliable and abusive drunk, picks up the box of kittens, saying vaguely that he has a destination for them. Their worn-down mother tells them that the cat knew what she was doing when she ran off and says sharply, "Forget about that cat!"
It's one of many heartbreaking moments that Mark and his eight siblings, children deeply callused by their hard lives, endure from 1971 to 1973, the three years before their mother's death at age 46.
Their mother, Corrine, was an Ojibwe from Odanah, on the Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin. She married Don Rolo, a white construction worker from Antigo, Wis. Their not entirely loveless marriage was vandalized by his alcoholism and abuse. Early in 1971, Don moved his family, quite against their will, to the isolated farmhouse near Big Falls, where for months they lived in the garage and spent almost every waking moment chopping wood.
The kids, including Mark -- who ages from 8 to 10 in this tale -- and his siblings, ranging in age from a baby to young adults, are troubled and resilient. Mark knows something is wrong with his ragged family, but he loves his siblings and longs to be closer to his lonely, elusive mother, who spends hours writing wistful letters to her relatives in Milwaukee.
Many a modern memoir explores a troubled childhood, but the genre has few standouts. Rolo's is one.
One reason for that is his stark child's-eye account of his family's straits. This is an extremely specific tale that also offers a window into the lives of poor, rural families. Another is his portrait of his mother, a woman whose circumstances and character are so unique that they won't remind you of anyone else.
Corrine is a bundle of complexities -- victim and co-dependent abuser, hero and villain. When she's not yelling at her children, she helps them with their homework. Her Ojibwe heritage brings her both solace and shame. Through all the grit of her life, her love for her children shows through, and theirs for her.
There are so many other good things about this book. Each of the children has his or her own complex personality. The town and school, even the school bus, come alive on the page. A dog named Whiskey serves as a sort of existential mascot for the children, and a black bear lurks in the woods.
So much material, and happily it's in the hands of the little boy who emerged from this crucible of poverty and pain to become a remarkable writer. Rolo's quiet afterword is as heart-rending as the story he tells. He has greatly honored his family with this book, and in doing so, he has also given us a small work of art.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.