cover image Clear Springs: A Memoir

Clear Springs: A Memoir

Bobbie Ann Mason. Random House (NY), $25 (298pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44925-6

Readers of Mason's fiction may have wondered whether the white, working class, small-town Kentucky she depicts is real or ""made up."" This memoir makes clear that her work is deeply rooted in her own experience. When Mason first left Clear Springs to attend college, she felt ashamed of being from the South, fearing that people might see her as ""a walking, mute mannequin of Southern Gothic horror in high heels and a beehive--or worse, a baton twirler with a police dog."" Gradually, she learned to accept her roots; this book is a loving embrace of that place and its people and a richly textured portrait of a rapidly disappearing way of life. However, those looking for deep psychological insight will not find it here. Nor will this memoir make Mason's family stop speaking to her: her attitude is that of an appreciative and respectful daughter. Although not all the characters are angelic, she finds reasons, if not justification, for even the alternately weak and controlling behavior of the mother-in-law who nearly ruined her beloved mother's life. In the first half of the book, Mason uses luxurious, larruping (Kentuckian for good enough to eat) language to evoke the sounds, taste, smells and sights of early childhood. In the second, weaker part, Mason helps her aging mother, Christy, move off the family farm into town, asks her questions and listens to her silences, hints and memories, out of which Mason constructs a version of how her mother, grandmother and great grandparents may have experienced various events in their lives. The resulting narrative, a somewhat tentative mixture of fiction and social history, is still compelling, but the prose never quite gels. Though Mason's strong grounding makes this memoir absorbing, it also prevents it from taking off in a risky, free-floating flight. (May)