"Small Fires" by Julie Marie Wade
REVIEW: Lyrical essays on growth
- Article by: CINDY WOLFE BOYNTON
- Special to the Star Tribune
- February 7, 2012 - 2:26 PM
In one of the many daydreams Julie Marie Wade shares in "Small Fires" (Sarabande Books, 184 pages, $15.95), George Bailey and Immanuel Kant debate man's obligation to live the best possible life -- and the wrongness of Bailey wishing his life away -- from the top of a Ferris wheel.
"If you have tried and failed, so be it, but the failure to not try is ... sinister," Kant says as their chair, perched at "the outermost point of the constellation," comes to a stop.
The pairing may seem odd to someone who hasn't yet read this painful, poetic essay collection about growing up. But Wade is nothing if not imaginative. Within the 12 essays that make up "Small Fires," a cancer tumor becomes an "agate of imperceptible ache"; a tortuous, three-times-a-day acne treatment forced on a teenage Wade by her mother becomes matins, "followed by vespers and the evening repose" that give "the day a certain symmetry, beginning in purge and ending in praise."
Readers of Wade's memoir, "Wishbone," or her award-winning poetry collection "Without," no doubt anticipated this kind of lyricism in "Small Fires," and Wade does not disappoint. The prose is visual, rhythmic and original, no matter what theme or topic she tackles: beauty, loyalty, rejection, love, neglect, obligation, acceptance, forgiveness.
Though each essay -- even some segments within essays -- can stand alone, "Small Fires" is best read as a whole. Each word and section matters, taking readers on a journey through Wade's defective childhood and into tentative adulthood. It's a journey that's sometimes happy, too often hurtful, but always honest -- unflinchingly so. In "The Flower of Afterthought," the pain Wade experiences from "the woman who is not my mother any longer" is palpable. And when, like George Bailey, Wade wishes -- again -- that she'd never been born, the reader "laces his fingers [and] draws a deep breath," as worried as Wade's psychologist.
Thankfully, Kant is Wade's favorite philosopher. And so Wade tries to live, as well as to please, to succeed and, even after she fails many times, to make choices that will allow her to be the person she realizes she not only wants to be, but was meant to be.
Winner of the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, "Small Fires" is intelligent and elegant, shocking and saddening, heartfelt and hopeful. Wade describes the book as "an elegy for many I have loved and lost," but it is also a celebration of the woman she found within herself and was able to eventually be.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.
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