Mary Clearman Blew is neither sentimental nor dogmatic. In simple, vivid prose she has written three memoirs about her lifetime in the American West. All But the Waltz describes her path to young adulthood from an isolated upbringing in a family with pioneer roots in Montana. In This is Not the Ivy League, she recounts her experiences with education in the West, from her rural childhood through her career as a writer and academic.
In mid-career, Blew accepted a teaching position that brought her to Lewiston, Idaho. Her elderly aunt who was in the earliest stage of dementia joined her there. As did her adult daughter. Balsamroot is the tale of these three women, each navigating the unknown at a different stage of life. The reader experiences how complexities of family, responsibility and understanding unfold across generations.
Here are some questions to guide and inspire you as you read this memoir. Many thanks to the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Library’s Page Turner’s Book Club for inspiring them.
- The period of the action of the memoir is short—from 1989 to 1991—during which Mary Blew moves her elderly aunt to Lewiston, Idaho, restarts her relationship with her daughter Elizabeth, and reconnects with “Pete Daniels.” Yet the full tale is much thicker. It is built with layers of recollection, history, family lore, and questions flung over a landscape that stretches from Port Angelus, Washington to Lewistown, Montana. Why didn’t she just “tell it straight?”
- Mary Blew’s prose is deceptively simple. Reread the first paragraph and note how much is conveyed in the choice of details and the sound of the sentences. Her writing is never flashy. Nothing in the language deliberately calls attention to the writer’s ability. Do you have favorite passages? What do you think of the opening sentence?
- Balsamroot was published in 1994. Perhaps you read it then. Did you respond (or would you have responded) to it differently 20 years ago than you do now? Did you (or would you have) identified with the same characters?
- What do you make of the title?
- As the narration shifts among characters and timeframes, we glimpse details about family relations, career, travel over passes and across landscapes, inward journeys, leaving home, and more. What parallels emerge among people’s lives? Did you make connections that surprised you?
- Mary Blew has always been quick to counter myths of the American West with facts. What do you think of her perspective? What comment does Balsamroot make on the American myth of the nuclear family? Do you think it is intentional?
- On page 11, the paragraph that begins, “On the west side of the Continental Divide…” is one of many landscape descriptions in the memoir. Which of these descriptions particularly resonates with you? Do you get a sense of how the narrator “sees” the landscape that stretches from Lewistown, Montana to Lewsiton, Idaho and all the way to Port Angelus, Washington? Do you see it in the same way?
- Despite her frustration with the women in her family keeping secrets and telling stories in coded language, Mary Blew does the same. What secrets does she keep from others—and herself? And for good reason? How do our notions about “the truth” change throughout our lives?
- Think about other biographies and autobiographies that you have read. How does Balsamroot compare to others in terms of: narrative arc, content, writer’s purpose, resolution, perspective, significance, etc.
- Complete the sentence; “This book is about….”