SOME AUTHORS WRITING the history of their families have it easy: They or their kin have either lived such celebrated existences or experienced such pain and misery that the books they fashion are immediately compelling. Bobbie Ann Mason--best known for In Country, her novel about the Vietnam era--has no such luck. Her family lived a hardscrabble existence in rural Kentucky and while this reality featured its share of suffering, it hardly seems to exceed the difficulties that many Appalachian people experience.
So it's a testament to Mason's narrative skill that Clear Springs, a sort of Odyssean saga, partially succeeds. The book chronicles Mason's childhood on the family farm, her trip away to college and a subsequent move to the East Coast in the 1960s, and her eventual return to Kentucky. Mason's descriptive passages are so vivid that they could almost induce the reader to consider a move to Kentucky: "The winter light is heavy and stark. Dim skies, silhouettes, of black trees, mud. The pondweed lies dormant; the soybeans were recently harvested, and here and there stray beans have spilled out in the soil. The dampness deepens these brown-and-black tones of the landscape."
Longtime readers of Mason's work will undoubtedly be pleased to see homespun, no-nonsense descriptions of the types of characters that populate her fiction, such as the real-life family of Sam Hughes, the teenage protagonist of In Country. Mason's own family walks through the book with a kind of plainspoken eloquence. Her mother recalls her early days of marriage in typically blunt terms. "Living with her in-laws could be embarrassing and uncomfortable. Trying to get a good night's sleep on Wilburn's narrow bed was like sleeping with a mule." Indeed, this book is a tribute to her mother Christy, who was orphaned at a young age. Christy's voice is the first one we hear in the book, as the author clears out weeds by a pond, and her battle to escape drowning in the pond, where she has just hooked a fish, ends it.
Yet Mason is somewhat less successful in capturing her own place on the farm. When she gets married on Long Island, for example, her parents "decided that the trip would be extravagant." And though the author is strongly attached to her family, she fails to explain how she felt about this absence. Similarly, Mason, who describes herself at that time as a "Southern girl trying to get over [her] culture," fails to fully explain the personal journey that eventually leads her home, undermining the second half of her story. Whether out of modesty or a lingering inability to explain her relationship with her origins, Mason has ultimately written the rare memoir that leaves its primary subject in the margins.