“Oh God,” I thought while reading the first story or two in Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. “I’m not liking this. I’m going to have to write ANOTHER negative review about a memoir! People are going to think I’ve got it in for memoirs!”
I am so, so glad I kept reading. The Boys of My Youth is actually a fantastic collection of creative non-fiction focused on Beard’s childhood in the Midwest, her relationships with her parents, siblings, and friends, and her tumultuous marriage. I feel like it’s somewhat misnamed; “The Boys of My Youth” is one specific story in the collection, not really the theme of ALL of the pieces. I’d say it focuses much more intimately on Beard’s family and female friends, and it’s pretty affirming.
The stories range in subject and length from the short, “Against the Grain,” about living with a perfectionist, to the long, titular story, that highlights how the relationship between Beard and her childhood friend Elizabeth has changed–and, more importantly, remained the same. That one especially is cute and cutting at the same time, as it depicts the ways the two friends support each other through divorces, while at the same time flashing back to when they were girls playing pranks on the boys in their neighborhood.
They all have, for the most part, a slow, sad sort of air about them, with little bursts of humor (yes, real humor!). “The Family Hour” is about Beard’s parents’ rocky relationship, due to her father’s alcoholism. ”Waiting” is about Beard and her sister choosing their mother’s coffin, and the last days of her life. ”Out There” is about Beard’s frightening run-in on with a trucker on an abandoned road. So the majority of these diverse stories are upsetting, yes, but also SUPER good. I felt like a got a really good feel for the kind of person Beard is, too, and I LIKED her.
One of my personal favorite stories, “The Fourth State of Matter,” is ostensibly about the slow, graceless decline of a pet dog and the end of Beard’s marriage–and then the main conflict comes at you out of nowhere and leaves you, like Beard in the story, a shaking mess. If you only read one story in this collection (and why would you do that??), make it that one. A million stars.
Interestingly, my least favorite stories of the collection were the most experimental: “Coyotes” was a sappy chore to read. (I can appreciate what she was doing and how she was using form and tone, but I don’t have to like it. And I LIKE nature writing!) “Behind the Screen” and “Bonanza,” the former about watching fireworks with her family and the latter about her grandparents, were two of the weaker stories, I felt. There was a shift in tone, a sense of trying too hard, or something else that I can’t quite pinpoint, but it definitely affected my enjoyment of those stories.
Overall, though, this was a thoughtful, enjoyable read that should appeal to even those who think they don’t like memoirs. Her tone is serious and funny where it needs to be, and she’s a talented writer with a well-developed sense of pace and plot. I especially liked the fact that the most defining characters in her life were the women: her mother, her cousin, her childhood best friend. All of these women supported her and shaped her in some way–made her stronger, really–and she regards them with a good mix of humor and honesty.
In my opinion, though, the collection is worth buying for “The Fourth State of Matter” and “The Boys of My Youth” alone.
This book counts as a non-fiction pick in the Women Unbound Challenge.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: The boys (and girls!) of a Kansas childhood and tumultuous adulthood.
New York Times Book Review
Meat and Potatoes