Kin Care

Beth Alvarado's memoir tenderly examines her cross-cultural family

The memoir trend continues, with no signs of abating, despite a high-profile outing of James Frey's fraud.

Just as un-reality TV corrodes traditional television narratives, memoir is a literary plague, threatening to wipe out everything, including the reason people picked up books in the first place—to escape reality, or to at least confirm that people, no matter their race or class or gender, have problems that, with some applied smarts, can be solved.

Interestingly, today's memoir—presented as a litany of addictions, poor behavior and parental trauma—targets a "grown-up" audience, while teenagers indulge in young-adult fiction, a subgenre into which an increasing number of mid-list novelists are leaping.

But what happens when you combine memoir's TMI template with the poet's subtle craft, when you match a commercial-minded endeavor with a writer interested in exploring ethnic identity?

The answer is Tucson professor Beth Alvarado's Anthropologies. In a series of short one-to-two-page vignettes, Alvarado explores her mixed family in a fashion that is distinctive. A middle-class white woman married to a Mexican American, the author delves into her relationships to better understand the connection between memory and personality, the world and the self.

Not every memory is Alvarado's; the subtitle is A Family Memoir. The book begins with her seated at the table in her mother's townhouse, typing the dying woman's stories into a laptop. Small, inconsequential noises—an oxygen machine, her mother brushing crumbs onto a plate—suggest the calm before the storm. The reader is swept along when Margaret goes to live with her first husband, Scott, stationed in Saipan after World War II. In a creosote hut, Margaret, who is pregnant, is spooked by footsteps while Scott is on night duty. She grabs his service revolver and waits.

... (S)he can hear the jungle growing. Then the light. Birds. Morning sounds, the children waking, and only then does she realize what she's been hearing. Banana slugs. Squishy, yellow banana slugs, as they dropped from the papaya tree on top of the tin roof of the Quonset hut.

This recurring motif of a woman alone, yet ready to do whatever it takes to preserve her family, recurs throughout Anthropologies. However, things first take a turn toward Romeo and Juliet as Alvarado enters adolescence and falls in a love with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks—Fernando, a waiter for the summer art classes in which Alvarado is enrolled. At this point, longtime locals will find her Proustian portrait of the old 'hood intriguing:

A small white house on Tucson's Westside, Barrio Hollywood, so named in the '50s because the junkies who hung out by the pay phone wore dark glasses como el James Dean. Three rooms in a line like a trailer: living room, bedroom, kitchen. Wood ceilings, painted-over linoleum floors, mismatched window frames salvaged from whatever. A row of salt cedars hedged the yard off from the street. It was 1972.

Dope enters the picture, with nearly tragic results. In a curative effort, but also to discourage the young lovers, Alvarado's mom packs her off to France. The plan fails—she's still a junkie, for heroin and Fernando. If anything, the time apart brings them—and the drugs—closer together. With the help of the Hope Center, though, they detox, but not before Alvarado walks out of her mom's house for what feels like the last time: "She had sealed off some part of herself long ago, long before I was born, I had always known that, I think."

She moves in with Fernando's family, which requires a wedding, followed by serious cultural immersion. From absorbing stories of la llorona (the Mexican legend of the weeping woman) to learning the recipe for salsa ranchera (salsa and cottage cheese), there's a lot to learn during her, and our, cultural immersion. To borrow the title of another book, everything's illuminated, documented and rendered with a poet's eye for detail, using precise, rich language.

The long road to recovery—the countless hours she spends running a halfway house for teen addicts and getting her MFA in creative writing—is paved in Alvarado's radiant prose. And a funny thing happens along the way: Despite her mother's insistence on keeping grandchildren at arm's length, despite Fernando's chronic hepatitis, despite academic pressures and her kids' difficulties growing up amidst different cultures, Alvarado preserves her family in the end.

Anthropologies inspired me to examine my own family narrative, with consideration to life's lyrical qualities. I can't say the same of the many other memoirs I've read.

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