In Memory’s Wake, Derek Owens lovingly revisits his mother’s troubled childhood to offer a hopeful and moving meditation on the relationship between the past and the present. Early in the book, Owens sets the stage for this meditation by explaining that his mother’s memories of the events in question lay dormant for years until the gradual departure of her grown children allowed for their return. Soon the author is traveling in his own mind back to the house where his mother suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother to interrogate his own memories and also to ask what it really means to remember.
Reconstructing his mother’s flight from the abuse in question, Owens overlays the young child’s journey with a narrative recounting the violent extirpation of the Iriquois who once populated the same lands his mother wandered as a child. The effect is both chilling and intriguing. We are a species, this telling juxtaposition suggests, that is capable of great cruelty. At the same time, however, our resilience knows no bounds. Still later, similar historical parallels drive home the point that our ghosts — or at least our history — will always be with us, but the fact that his mother did not perpetuate the cycle of abuse with her own children bears silent testimony to our collective ability to change for the better. Haunted though we may be by the past, the narrative insists, the present is what we make of it.
Stylistically, Memory’s Wake offers a highly engaging blend of history and personal narrative that suggests the two are less discrete than we might normally imagine. Throughout, Owens displays a talent for homespun yet telling imagery, as when he describes an average dinner with his grandmother: “ashy potatoes, smears of applesauce. peas grainy from freezer burn. slices of pot roast pearly gray, fibers on the ends sticking out like frayed wires. in the middle of the table a gravy boat, mud colored skin, thick as a bathmat. if you dropped a pea on top it would have sat there, tiny green planet.”
Heartbreaking and hopeful, Memory’s Wake will appeal to anyone interested in exploring the borderlands between history and personal narrative and will also make for an excellent text in any creative nonfiction course.