“Riding on Comets,” by Cat Pleska

Cat Pleska

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Though her family was hardly perfect, Cat Pleska leaves readers feeling uplifted rather than grungy from being dragged through the dirty laundry in her memoir, Riding on Comets.

In part, the warm tone results because she never doubted that her parents wanted the best for her. Without words, they implied that she could become whoever she wanted to be. An early lesson from Pleska’s Mommaw also helps her accept life’s imperfections. Pleska asked if a bruised apple should be thrown away. Not at all, her Mommaw assured her, it is like everything else in life: you “got the good with the bad. Just the way it is.” She discarded the bruise and fed her granddaughter a slice of green apple off a knife.

The memoir is organized into six sections: Images, Awakening, Awareness, Reaction, Loss, and Strength. Each section contains a series of vignettes spanning Pleska’s formative years through her fifties. Quite appropriately, the narrator’s voice matures as the years pass. Taken together, the stories create a detailed portrait of a working class family’s life in Hurricane and Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

Pleska’s early memories reveal a close-knit extended family. Poppaw and various uncles make her feel important by letting her salt their beers. Mommaw let her help run laundry through the wringer and help with canning. The family goes to great lengths to foster her belief in Santa Claus. They send others onto the roof to clatter like reindeer paws, and sure enough, in the morning, there are hoof prints in the yard, made not by reindeer, of course, but by draft horses. One folk remedy described in the story triggered a memory I’d long forgotten. My mother, too, blew cigarette smoke into my ears to cure an earache. Through these many examples, the author shows family members caring for each other.

Yet Pleska admits, “The emotion I felt most of my young life was fear.” As an only child she was “small among giants.” Some fears she describes, like monsters in the bedroom after the lights are turned out, are common to most children. Yet much of the fear stemmed from her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s fragile mental state. Her father often went on a drunken binge and would disappear for days at a time, leaving them without money, food, or a car. Her mother’s depression seemed to dovetail with her father’s binges. Those traumatic parts of her family were things she lived with, “not knowing what to call them.” No one spoke of them. The regret Pleska expresses for “what went unsaid between my mother, father, and me” struck me as deeply honest and true.

Pleska uses several unusual techniques to tell her family’s story. To cover her mother’s mental state, Pleska shares the psychiatrist’s notes on hospitalizations, medications, and emotional progress. We get an idea of the scope of her mother’s problems from an objective outsider. The detached, clipped tone of the notes feels harsh. Another unusual technique is the telling of the “Night on Cheat Mountain” from three different perspectives. These three stories foreshadow another major incident on Cheat Mountain.

In the introduction, Pleska explains she is going to tell her family stories without overly embellishing them, just patting them into shape, like the mud pies she made as a girl. In the end, she convinces us that she has made peace with who she is and with the family she came from: “I had carved a place for myself into this family and into the land. Together, we will remain in story, patted, shaped, a thing created that will last.”

The title comes from an anecdote that illustrates the kind of gifts her parents gave her. Once her father woke her up in the middle of a cold winter night and led her outside to see Bennett’s Comet. Even though he had dropped out of high school to work, he never lost his sense of curiosity. He shared his awe that the comet was moving at phenomenal speed though it appeared stationary. Her mother, also a drop out, was a voracious reader and taught Pleska, by example, to love reading. Later, when her parents disappointed her, she chose “not to be bitter,” because they had taught her to love learning and “ride on comets, lifted skyward from their humble shoulders.”

Early in the memoir, Pleska relates a nearly supernatural experience she had as a child: she suddenly felt as if someone had wrapped her in a warm blanket and filled her with joy and the knowledge that everything would be okay, that she would not be like her parents. Fortunately, that premonition came true.

Riding on Comets was short listed in 2016 for the Indefab book of the year. A seventh generation West Virginian, Pleska holds a B.A. in English (West Virginia State University), M.A. in Humanities (Marshall University), and M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction (Goucher College). She was a regular writer for Wonderful West Virginia magazine for many years and is an essayist on West Virginia Public Radio and a former book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette. She is also a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She is a freelance writer and editor, a full-time instructor in the Master of Liberal Arts Studies program at Arizona State, and teaches writing and literature at Marshall University.

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