Three Girls From Bronzeville, by Dawn Turner****

Dawn Turner is an award-winning journalist who grew up in Bronzeville, the historic home of the Black Community in the south end of Chicago. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss for the invitation to read and review; I also extend my apology for missing the date of publication. This well written memoir is for sale now.

Turner looks back at her life through the lens of sisterhood. The two other girls mentioned in the title are her younger sister, Kim, and her best friend, Debra, whom she meets in elementary school. She takes us through the benchmarks of her life in a narrative that is both intimate and conversational, but that also features a keen depth of analysis, as she examines their experiences with regard to race, gender, social class, and of course, a few random, intangible but significant aspects of their experiences.

I enjoyed this book. There’s some terrific humor—for example, as a child, Dawn ascertains that a trip to the hospital is the equivalent of a death sentence, and when she needs a tonsillectomy, she gives away her most prized possessions, explaining that she is “going home to be with the Lord.”

And…about that. The humor is terrific, but the Lord dominates this story in a way that makes me uncomfortable, with passages that go far beyond the brief and the pithy. It’s her story, and she should tell it the way she chooses, but the almost constant religious references make this more of a Christian memoir than one for general audiences. It has a lot of nice moments and is told by a skillful scribe, but at the same time, I’m not sure I’d read another memoir of hers, should she choose to write it, because I find these frequent references tiresome. I have to wonder if the story would be any less authentic if this aspect were included with a gentler hand.

There are lots of meaty issues, thought provoking and common to the experience of a great many people. At one point, for example, she gives a speech at school, and although it is exhilarating and more than successful, Debra passes her a note asking why she sounds white when she speaks to an audience. Later, as an adult, Dawn and her husband confront other choices. Is it better to get a house in a low crime area that is mostly Caucasian, or should one stay in the Black community, even if there are fewer opportunities for their child there? Then the same issue arises regarding school choice. There are many other thought-provoking situations, but I’ll leave you to find these on your own.

This is a powerful memoir written by an accomplished wordsmith. For those that can read it with Jesus riding shotgun, this book is recommended.

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini and Rebecca Paley****

TroublemakerActor Leah Remini was a child when her mother discovered Scientology; the church was in many ways her parent. When she rebelled against it, she was smart and very public, and she spells the entire thing out for us right here.

Scientology is a cult that relies heavily, as cults do, on secrecy and peer pressure. Children are seen as adults in children’s bodies; they have more agency than kids in normal families do, but they also have absolutely no support system. This is a thing that the states should have been all over a long time ago, but money talks, and the church cultivates relationships with people in key places. No wonder they didn’t want Remini—or anybody else—to talk about it. In turns her memoir is incisive, shocking, and sometimes very funny. Remini discovered that the emperor isn’t wearing a stitch when she challenged the double standard the church uses with regard to big names, in particular Tom Cruise. Her candor and wit make the story shine.

Should you buy this book? I did, thanks to a gift certificate from Powell’s City of Books. Had I known that there was an entire television series, in documentary format, I might have decided to buy something else, but it’s a well-written memoir, albeit with the assistance of someone else.  It flows well with never a slow point, and there are a lot of interesting pictures.

An interesting memoir, and a fast read.

Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, by Saloma Miller Furlong*****

bonnetstringsA few years ago I read and reviewed this author’s first memoir, Why I Left the Amish. Her reasons were compelling, some of them inherent in the Amish tradition, others probably atypical of most Amish families, but all together they provided a powerful impetus, that little voice inside all but the dullest that cries out, “Man the life boats! Save yourself!” I understood, having read it, why Furlong would choose to bail, but I was left with other questions, mostly regarding a gap between the end of the book and the author’s biographical blurb. Happily, I heard from her a couple of months ago; she had written a sequel, and this is it. She volunteered kindly to send it in my direction for a chance to read and review, and it is just as riveting as the first.

The first volume dealt with the horrifying domestic abuse within her family, and the failure of the church to deal with it. Furlong wondered whether she might have remained Amish had she not dreaded her home life, or at least many aspects of it, so tremendously.

It also dealt with her independent nature and intellectual curiosity (my own terms, not hers). Why would the Amish so persistently seek to stamp out the desire of some of its own members to seek higher education, I had to wonder. Would they not want Amish nurses, professors, plumbers, electricians?

The e-mail I received from the author mentioned a PBS miniseries in which she was featured, The Amish followed by The Amish: Shunned. Once I finished reading Bonnet Strings, I decided to hold my review until I could view these productions, some four hours all told. Between what she tells us in this second memoir and what is said in the miniseries, I understand. Not that I know what it is like to be Amish; far from it. But I see now why they set such strict parameters in order to preserve their culture.

The metaphor the Amish use for the individual is that of a grain of wheat. The church is a loaf of bread, and one person can’t be in that loaf without crushing out their individual needs and desires. I have heard of other cultures abroad that take this approach—the Chinese come to mind—but for a quarter million such people to be here in the USA with its John Wayne culture of independence is remarkable indeed, and it is clear to me now that to permit its members to put even one toe into the world of freedom, independence, and yes, greater risk, is to invite its youth to leave and not return. But ninety percent of Amish children grow up to be Amish. They stay Amish. And I really think the twin practices of shunning those—even one’s own children or yikes, parents!—when they leave, combined with the standing offer of reconciliation upon return, is the powerful engine that sucks many of those that have departed back into the fold.

Furlong has been independent and living in Burlington, Vermont, has built new friendships and has a serious boyfriend, but she goes back to the Amish when they come for her. She recounts how it is almost as if a mental switch has been thrown, and she suddenly no longer feels she has a choice. Until I watched the documentaries to accompany the poignant and visceral material in her memoir, I thought this was crazy. But the combination of religion, family, and the fact that there is another language, that old German dialect spoken only by the Amish, weaves a powerful spell. It is as if a voice says, “We know you in a way no one else can.” Saloma goes back to live in her old home town once. Others go back multiple times before they are able to tear away. Actually, our author made a pretty good job of it compared to others that tear themselves away, and in the end is happier that she has returned once in order to put to rest her own doubts, her own questions about whether, once out of her father’s home, she could become a successful Amish woman.

Her memoir is punctuated with memories scribed by her husband, David Furlong, who was a part of her journey out into the world. He provides a different perspective, perhaps closer to what the reader might have seen.

In reading the memoir, it occurred to me that the practice of shunning creates selective breeding. If those that become independent are allowed to return to the community at will and be welcomed, allowed to mix and mingle, then before you know it, they would intermarry. And though science has still not teased apart the mystery of which qualities in us are inbred, and which are the result of how we are raised, the stunning level of passivity among those that remain in the community is remarkable. And it is those truly passive folk that have babies, babies, and more babies. I suspect that this is how they have managed to not only not die out, as those of us on the outside would have anticipated, but thrive and grow.

With a thoughtful memoir such as Bonnet Strings, I like to read the foreword and introduction, read the book, then go back and reread both of them again. The producer of the documentaries wrote the foreword, and she mentioned that Saloma has taken the time—some thirty years–to let her experiences gel. The memoir, therefore, is not written for a therapeutic purpose, but rather to provide an account, both of the strengths and tenacity within the Amish culture, and of the resilience required of those that simply cannot find a place within it.

Because there is no middle ground. There probably never will be.

This articulate, engaging memoir is available for purchase right now. This is a great way to spend your own holiday weekend, and it would also make a terrific gift. Fascinating!