by Jerry Waxler
(Click here for Part 1 of this review. Coming soon: an original interview with Tracy Seeley)
The memoir “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” chronicles Tracy Seeley’s search for herself. She travels from San Francisco back to her origins in the Midwest, tracks down old neighbors and friends of her family and asks them, “What was going on with Mom and Dad?”
Early in her inquiry she wearies of crunching into her parents’ motivation. The task doesn’t offer the insight she expected. She decides that to understand herself, she needs to understand Kansas. She lets us meet the people in Kansas who love their land, and she immerses us in their perspective. She digs deeper and researches the past. What was it like through the centuries to live in Kansas, or pass through Kansas, and finally to be passed over by travelers across the country who look down from 30,000 feet? Her search leads her back to the economic frenzy that drove people there in the nineteenth century to kill native inhabitants, plunder vast bison herds, and plow under the Great Plains.
She shows us the Heartland not through the eyes of an expert historian but through the eyes of a woman trying to understand herself. Subtly, gently, and almost inevitably, she expands up to another level and asks how Kansas fits into the psychology of the entire nation. Her charter to make peace between these two parts of the country is extremely important to her. Having grown up on the Great Plains and then lived in Connecticut and San Francisco, she now needs to unify these parts of the country in order to find her own peace.
Her quest for wholeness coincides with a media-declared rift of red and blue states, an adversarial picture that appears to draw us apart. I hate this split, and have my own longings to unite these apparently disparate aspects of our country. For one thing, as Abe Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I have another, more personal reason. I grew up in Philadelphia, and arrived in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison as a self-proclaimed big city intellectual. After four years, I discovered that many of the people to whom I felt most authentically connected had grown up in the Midwest. They seemed more straightforward, and somehow disarmed my overly complex emotional defenses. So even though Tracy Seeley was searching for herself, I felt that she represented my interests as well. I leaned forward, page by page, as she turned the curiosity of an English professor toward solving the dilemmas of real life.
Search for self turns into a philosophy of life
Typical Coming of Age stories follow a fairly simple trajectory. A child sets out to become an adult. The satisfaction at the end results when the person has figured out how to face the world. Tracy Seeley’s memoir is not a typical Coming of Age story. It begins not through the eyes of a little girl, but a sophisticated college professor seeking to understand her origins. Her search starts as a psychological investigation. Then it expands to wider and wider circles, from her self to her family, her community, state, and nation, and finally Nature.
Many stories end with an exit ramp, called a “denouement” where, after the body of the action, the author and reader relax, say goodbye, and prepare to return to the real world. Tracy Seeley’s denouement is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in memoirs. As she collects all the information she has gathered, the heartlands and coastlands become parts of one whole, just as people, nature, and place are all parts of each other. The conclusion of the story is not a set of logical facts, but a poetic impressionistic image of optimistic wholeness. When I first picked up the book, I suspended disbelief and entered her state of mind. By the end, I want to reread it so I can return there.
Her ending demonstrates the amazing, expansive possibilities for the memoir genre. Each book takes us deep into the workings of whatever is meaningful in the author’s world. If at the beginning of the memoir, the author starts out attempting to answer a philosophical question, the most satisfying conclusion is a philosophical answer.
The title and substance of “Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas” plays on one of the most widely known stories in modern times. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy leaves her home in search for love. Her quest leads her to the city of Oz where she finds that the Wizard does not have all the answers after all. In the conclusion of that story, she realizes that the good qualities of life have been in front of her all along. Her parents do love her, but to appreciate that love she had to develop some qualities within herself. The story makes a powerful point for modern life. To find wholeness, we have to be willing to go both ways on the golden highway, to unite the worldly knowledge of city and university with the simplicity of nature and family. Ruby Slippers updates Wizard of Oz to modern times. It’s a remarkable achievement of philosophical art.
Other memoirs that focus on place
Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, West Virginia in Jim Crow south.
House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper, A privileged girl grows up in Liberia, Africa.
Thrumpton Hall, Miranda Seymour, a daughter explores the history of the English Country Manor where she grew up.
Writing Prompts, Place
What place made an impact on you? Changed you? Frightened you? Made you long to stay forever?
Write a scene about moving to a new place and feeling out of place.
Writing Prompt, Great Dualities
How can you help the reader understand more about some great dilemma in your life, such as “right wing and left wing” or “religion versus spirituality,” “city versus country,” “black versus white”? Of course you may be tempted to back up your ideas by quoting ideologies or belief systems. Such idea-based reasoning might be good for normal conversation, but in stories, too many ideas jolt the reader out of suspension-of-disbelief. Set aside your ideology and theories and try to make your points through scenes, with dramatic tension, and realizations to help the reader identify with your dilemmas. Write one or even a sequence of scenes, complete with characters, dialog, historical context, that show how the dilemma tore at you, and how you reacted.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.