"I forget sometimes," my mom told me recently, "that we'ved lived such a great adventure, and then I read the reviews of your book and it all comes over me again and I think: We really did that!"
My dad calls me on the handheld VHF radio in the mornings and asks if there's been a new review. Since I often can't access Amazon because of my poor signal, a kind friend emails me whenever new reviews pop up and I pass them on to my parents.
In fact, one of my favorite things since getting my memoir Raised in Ruins published, about growing up in the ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery with only my family, is sharing reviews of the book with my parents. It's really the only way I have of thanking them for gifting me with the adventure of a lifetime.
The reviews by women often say something like this one by Cynthia Yoder: "Maybe it's because I'm a mom, but by the end of the book, I found myself awed by the author's mother, who continually worked to protect her children while her husband was away logging."
Male reviewers identified with my dad, such as Benjamin Scribner: 'I could relate to her dad, a Vietnam veteran, as I myself am a veteran of the war in the Persian Gulf. I felt I understood him in ways only another veteran could. Over all, I felt this book down to my soul.'
Nancy Guess focused on both of my parents: "Meet the Neilsons: a father who is a Viet Nam war vet with PTSD and a real-life MacGyver; a young mom of 5 kids who is tasked with protecting her children from the dangers of the wilderness and both parents ensuring that the children have childhoods."
One review is now part of family lore, the one by Ann C, who wrote: "The writing is rich with detail and the personalities of family members are vivid, irritating, lovable and more--in a word real." After I read it I asked my family who they thought was the "irritating" one. Each of us laid claim to it, trying to top each other by pointing out our most irritating traits and actions. I'm sure it will come up in family reunions for years to come.
Like many parents, my parents think their children are the most talented. Many of the reviews didn't mention how I did with the actual writing, so they were pleased when Terry Levin, an accomplished writer himself, wrote: "It gives a very real sense of what it was like to be a kid growing up in the wilderness and how such a kid could develop a profound love of life that, objectively, was filled with backbreaking labor, few comforts of modern civilization, significant dangers to life and limb and a great deal of isolation. And like the best storytellers, she SHOWS us how this happened, not just telling us that it did. In reading her blog, I sometimes noticed upon finishing an entry that I had become so enthralled that I forgot I was reading: that it seemed I had just soaked up information.... There were portions of this book where she achieved this same effect, especially the lengthy chunk about dealing with an invasion of wolves. Writing that seems effortless is, we all know, often the writing that requires the most effort."
hile I was writing down my childhood memories, I didn't think that much about how those in my family would react to what I wrote about them. I was told repeatedly by the experts, when I researched writing memoirs, that in order to write your truth, you needed to shut out the awareness of family and friends reading and judging it later.
After it was published, I did wonder how my family would receive it. I soon found out how at least one of them felt about it as my second youngest brother, Robin, shared with me his reactions in real time as he read Raised in Ruins.
"You would be amazed at the memories my brain is remembering by reading your book!" he texted me as he read. "You have no idea how emotional I am right now! Good though! I feel young! I have energy I haven't felt in forever."
Twenty years ago, Robin nearly died in a catastrophic car accident that left him with permanent pain and he was put on highly addictive prescription medication to deal with it. Like many in America, he suffered from addiction. "Living in pain every single day of my life for the past twenty years," he texted, "and being drug free for over a month and fighting that battle, I don't feel any pain right now! ...I even remember the smell of finger paint.... This is amazing. It's a roller coaster. Man the ups and downs! I'm crying one minute and laughing hysterically the next. Your writing is awesome! I can't compare it really to any one writer I have ever read. I have never thought of writers as artists but you truly are. You paint a picture of our upbringing. At times I forget I'm in it till my name comes up! Fantastic!"
I had never imagined when I was writing the book that it would affect anyone this way and actually, physically help them, let alone someone I loved. Finally, after he finished the book, he wrote me perhaps the greatest compliment I'll ever receive that left me--and continues to leave me--in tears.
He texted: "Your book has taken me out of deep depression.... Your book is changing my life! What a relief! ...It's amazing how we forget who we were and who we are."
Robin said that he didn't have to be depressed because he realized he was essentially a good person and it was because of how we were raised. I can agree with that. So thank you, Mom and Dad.
I can't imagine any review I receive ever topping that one, but if you read Raised in Ruins please consider leaving a review. I promise to share it with my parents.
Raised in Ruins US link: amzn.to/2UQHxKs UK link: amzn.to/2QMMdxW (or post on whichever site you prefer)
We were let out of school at 2:30 pm because the teachers of the small Alaskan bush school my four siblings and I attended knew that during mid-winter, by the time we made the nearly half-hour skiff ride home, it would be dark.
As soon as the clock’s hands hit 2:30, we donned our cold winter gear, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down to the dock to wait for our dad.
The village kids either took the small, winding trail home (there were no roads in the 29 population fishing community) or accompanied us down to the dock that was lined with our relatives’ trolling boats, to jump in their small skiffs.
They only had to cross the harbor. We had to head out onto the open strait in a sixteen foot, wooden skiff our dad had built himself, and cross an unprotected bay before we reached our home in the ruins of a burned cannery.
We chopped up slimy, iodine-scented bull kelp and flung it at each other as we waited. By the time we heard the distinctive sound of our dad’s 50hp Mercury outboard and saw the silhouette of him at the back of the skiff as he approached the entrance, the sky behind him was ruddy and rapidly darkening.
When he pulled up to the dock we saw his beard was encrusted with frozen salt spray. We glanced at each other before settling into the skiff and braced ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough, cold ride. We’d be splattered with icy Alaskan water and be so stiff when we climbed out at home we could barely walk. By then dusk had set in and when we crossed the sawdust trail through the forest to get to the house we’d just built, we had to follow our white dogs: the last bit of light made them glow.
We raced each other the last distance to be the first ones in the house to plunge our frozen hands into the canner on the woodstove that was always full of hot water. Sometimes I didn’t bother to jostle my way through the bodies to get to it. Instead, I’d run upstairs to my room and with chattering teeth and numb, shaking hands, I’d light my kerosene lamp and grab the western I’d been reading the night before.
I always chose westerns that were set in the desert. Nothing felt better than putting myself in the hero’s creaking saddle as his horse plodded across the shimmering sand. The more he sweated, the more parched he became, the more I liked it.
As soon as I finished one, I’d pick up another. My two favorites were WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND and THE DESERT CRUCIBLE by Zane Grey. No one wrote with more detail or gusto about the deadly heat of the desert than Grey. I listened to German pop group Nena as I read, and the desert became eternally imprinted on their music.
These days, after shoveling snow off the deck of my floathouse from morning till evening so it doesn’t sink under the weight, I turn to Tony Hillerman. In the middle of an Alaskan winter, I love to read his Navajo mysteries set in a hot and dusty corner of Arizona.
If I’m too tired to read after scraping snow off the roof, or spending hours firewood logging in 20 below wind chill, I’ll watch the three movies PBS made from Hillerman’s novels. My favorite is “Coyote Waits.” The first words spoken in it are: “It’s a hot, hot day on the rez.”
The more arid scenes there are of red-stone rock bluffs, desert scrub plants, basking lizards, and humans complaining about the heat, the better.
It’s no accident that the only house plants I own are a cactus and an aloe vera. When I buy calendars I spurn ones with seasonal photos. Instead, I gravitate towards ones that have titles like “The Tropics” or “American Deserts.”
People often ask me how I cope with Alaskan winters out here in the wilderness, since most people who own homes here make sure to only visit during the temperate summers. I tell them I was fortunate enough to grow up out here so I’m used to it. But the underlying truth is that at a young age I discovered that the key to coping with anything is how well you can manipulate your own mind.
As a child I recognized that if you can engage your mind in an experience that is different from what your body is experiencing, your mind can find a way to free you from the environment and moment you’re stuck in.
Now, on this cold winter day as I sit inside my floathouse with the sleet hammering the roof and obscuring the view out my window, I’m going to find my battered 80s cassette of Nena’s album “99 Red Balloons” to play on the stereo.
And escape to the desert.
The kind and talented Grace Augustine at the website Originality by Design, asked if I would do a guest blog to help promote my memoir Raised in Ruins (due out April 7, 2020) and I agreed. When it was posted and the editor of my memoir read it she said she loved it and would be delighted if I'd make it the new opening to the book. See what you think:
Every day as a child was an adventure for me and my four siblings as we lived in the burned ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery. Some days had more adventure in them than others. Mail day was a day that promised parent-free adventure.
Our mail arrived at a nearby fishing village by floatplane once a week, weather permitting. We only lived seven miles of water away from the village—there were no roads, or even trails—but the route was hazardous, even deadly, because of the mercurial nature of our weather. What had been glassy water an hour before as we made the trip in a thirteen foot open Boston Whaler could turn into a maelstrom of seething white water only an hour later to catch us on the return trip.
Tides, weather forecasts, and local signs had to be carefully calculated before the trip could be made. So, it sometimes happened that we would miss several mail days in a row and get three weeks’ worth of mail all at once. My parents usually made the trip by themselves, leaving us kids behind in our floathouse home. (A regular wood frame house resting on a raft of logs.)
Our sense of adventure, always present since our family comprised the entire population of humans for miles in any direction, quadrupled as we waved good-bye to them. We watched them turn into a speck out on the broad bay with the mountain ranges of vast Prince of Wales Island providing a breathtaking backdrop for them.
Then we cut loose. We ran around the beaches, jumping into piles of salt-sticky seaweed and yelling at the top of our lungs, the dogs chasing us and barking joyously. We tended to do this every day, but this was different. We lived in an untamed wilderness that could kill full grown adults in a multitude of ways and we children had it all to ourselves.
At our backs was the mysterious forest that climbed to a 3,000 foot high mountain that looked like a man lying on his back staring up at the sky that we called “The Old Man.” In front of us was the expanse of unpredictable water with no traffic on it, except for the humpback whales, sea lions, and water fowl.
And we were the only humans to be seen in all of it.
As we scattered, my littlest brother, Chris, wound up with me in our twelve-foot, aluminum rowing skiff. I was twelve and he was seven, and we were buckled up in our protective, bright orange lifejackets that we never went anywhere without.
“Where shall we go, Sir Christopher?” I asked in a faux British voice as I sat in the middle seat with an oar on either side of me. “Your wish is my command.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”
I looked around. The floathouse sat above a small stream below the forest, its float logs dry, since the tide was halfway out. Opposite it was a smaller floathouse we called the wanigan that we used to go to school in, before our dad built a school for us on land, but was now the washhouse.
The small, sheltered cove suddenly felt restrictive since it was the only part of the old cannery we saw on a regular basis, and there wasn’t much of the old cannery to see, just some pilings sticking half out of the water.
“Let’s go to the ruins,” I said.
The rest of the post can be read at: https://originalitybydesign.blogspot.com/2019/09/to-ruins-by-tara-neilson.html
Tara Neilson (ADOW)