Reviewed by Yasser El-Sayed
In Battlegrounds of Memory, Clay Lewis traces a rich and conflicted trajectory of loss, pain and redemption over the course of generations. This slim book is a uniquely American story that is narrated with unflinching honesty and infused with such elemental raw emotion that its ultimate achievement lies far beyond a memoir of southern family, capturing a universality of human experience.
Lewis writes, “The voices of the dead of one’s family have wondrous, scathing, humbling and often beautiful things to tell us … I am discovering how much the past, as living force, is with us in every minute of our lives.”
Family – fractured and brittle, resilient and forgiving – underpins the long journey Lewis takes in unraveling and reconstructing the complex tapestry of his past. Steeped in great American historical moments – from the colonial frontier, the Civil War, and the Great Depression to the contemporary shatter-scape of broken families and urban isolation – Lewis unearths the arterial grid that connects his present moment, like so many pulsating cords, to a past of damaged dreams, violence, unrequited ambition and relentless struggle of Sisyphean proportions.
With surgical-like precision, Lewis traces his father’s family from their Mississippi roots to their relocation in Oklahoma, the bankruptcy that followed them, and the family’s life in an abandoned store when his father returns, dreaming of a college education and the chance to be a doctor. Instead, his father is cast out by the family and burdened by a sense of absence that is relieved only, it seems, with the pain-numbing balm of alcohol. Lewis writes this about his father as a young man: “With the long, good pulls of Bourbon, sweating through his shirt, he felt all right . . . His compass gone, he was drifting in huge landscapes like tens of thousands of others in Oklahoma and Texas. . . . Right there Dad closed the door on his inner life.”
His mother, from North Carolina, a lady of the South, steeped in a tradition she both embraced and fled, struggled to define herself beyond the sacred ideals of a southern and Christian lady. Away from her family, alone with a young son and a faltering marriage, she was sustained at least for a while by her courageous belief that she could carve for herself a new path as a modern woman.
From his boyhood in Washington, D.C., to his time in St. Louis (where his father once lived), to his attempt to become a doctor, to his academic literary career that would see him move to Oklahoma, to his three marriages and return to D.C., Lewis seems destined to tread a scorched physical and emotional existence both familiar and familial.
But even this is not to be.
If Battlegrounds of Memory is anything, it’s a story of discovery and understanding, of love and acceptance, and finally, of liberation.
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