In the Country of Women, Susan Straight, Catapult, 2019, 358 pp
Susan Straight is another one of my favorite authors. I have read all of her seven novels. This book is a memoir that almost reads like a novel.
She is a petite blonde whose novels feature an extended Black family in Rio Seco, CA (her fictional name for Riverside.) Many years ago when I read her first novel, I've Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, I along with others wondered what gave her the right to explore so deeply the life of a Black single mother.
Soon we learned that Susan Straight married into a Black family. In the Country of Women tells how she met and fell in love with her husband, how she grew up relatively poor with a Swiss immigrant mother, how she learned to read at the age of three, and how she became a writer shortly after she learned to read.
When she met Dwayne Sims, she found a huge extended family who accepted her unconditionally (after making sure she could cook.) Dwayne's mother provided the warmth that Susan's own mother was too embittered by life to give to her daughter.
I have a special affinity for girls who grow up reading every book they can get their hands on and then go on to write their own. Though Susan Straight is a decade younger than I, as kids we read all the same books!
Once she became an in-law to the Sims family and once she took a writing class with James Baldwin at Amherst College, she determined to research the history of both her family and the Sims. She also had three daughters with Dwayne and wanted to give them particularly the stories of all the strong women who came from Europe and the American south to California. Women who overcame incredible hardships and did whatever was needed to provide for and protect their children.
Hence the title: In the Country of Women. It is a beautiful, deeply emotional yet somehow lighthearted memoir. It is a gift to the world in which she proclaims the triumphs for which most women are left unthanked and unrecognized.
Most of all, it is a tribute to family, to taking care of your own as well as welcoming in those who are uncared for. It is full of hope.