My Home Is Far Away
By Dawn Powell
Anyone with the least bit of introspection understands just how difficult being honest with oneself can be. Then there is the dynamic of family and friends, the desire to be truthful often tempered with the fear of offending and alienating. Add to this mix clarity of writing and the spotlight of publication and you can appreciate the personal trial and relief of the best probing memoirs, and this most personal autobiographical novel of the great and woefully under appreciated observer of high artistic society at mid twentieth century, Dawn Powell.
Readers and admirers of Powell will certainly appreciate the insight she affords us into her upbringing. Though not as biting and satirical as her best known collection of New York novels, among them The Locusts Have No King (a personal favorite), The Wicked Pavilion, or the Golden Spur, My Home Is Far Away entertains with a brand of humor quizzical like a child’s but written with the precision of a highly accomplished author. As an example for those on the fence about jumping into the book, here’s a passage introducing us to Marcia’s (Powell’s stand-in) and her sisters’ vacation on their aunt and uncle’s farm:
“The finest feature of life on the farm was the vacation from manners. Voices were never lowered; indeed, a normal tone was regarded as city affectation, and a suspicious attempt at secrecy. You could hear Uncle Louie talking far off in the barn to visitors, and even in the very same room he and Aunt Betts shouted at each other as if they were acres apart. It may have been that this constant noise kept them from being lonesome. At any rate, the shrill nasal pitch maintained indoors and out by the couple and all their neighbors managed to convey hearty good humor, open hearts and solid virtue. Marcia and Lena tried to achieve the same effect in their speech but it evidently took years of training to get your voice to come twanging through your nose that way, and when you tried it your very palate seemed to whirr like a banjo string…. Fancy table manners were also suspect, indicating a desire to seem better than ordinary folks. Such airs as ‘Please pass the butter’ were almost insults, and likely to be reprimanded by Uncle Louie saying ‘What are your arms for?’”
However, Powell’s young life was anything but a barrel of laughs. Her mother died when she was very young. Her father, though loving, was at best a hapless itinerant salesman, and her stepmother was, to put it mildly, selfish and cruel to the three sisters (Phyllis, Dawn, and Mabel). Her portrayal of her stepmother is scathing and life with her the very definition of child abuse. From this, Lena (Phyllis) and Marcia desire nothing more than to escape.
Readers not familiar with Powell’s work can easily enjoy this autobiographical novel on several levels. The childlike observations expressed with adult sensibility are delightful even if you know nothing of Powell. Powell’s recreation of 1900s Midwestern life reminds us of a more rugged, more self-sufficient, and harsher America. It also illustrates the diversity then of life in America, with myriad cultures living just in the area surrounding Powell’s hometown of Gilead, Ohio. And perhaps most of all, there’s the resilience of Powell and her sisters that will touch many readers. w/c