Dora Dueck: A Memoirist’s Memoirist

I received an advance reader’s copy of this lovely book:

Book Cover

Book Cover

When I first saw the cover of this book, which will be released on June 1, 2022, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It looks topographical, both scientific and mysterious. It suggests far more than its spare language and amorphous images indicate. According to the author, the cover is a photo by Anneli Epp, taken at Botanical Beach, Vancouver Island, Canada. I could gaze at it for a long time.

And what is that strange title all about? Return Stroke? It’s worth cracking open the book to seek an answer to that question. The introduction says that the title, which is also the title of one of the essays, refers literally to lightning, but that it works well on the figurative level also: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.”

The reader will do well to look for undulating motion in the essays and monograph that follow. There’s a dance between then and now, certainty and uncertainty, wondering and knowing, the author’s story and the story of others in her life, and between places and landscapes in Canada and in Paraguay, the setting of the longer monograph at the end, “In the House of My Pilgrimage.”

Memoir author, teacher, and podcaster, Marion Roach Smith argues that memoir consists of a three-legged stool:

  1. The answer to the question, “What is this about?’
  2. Your argument
  3. The scenes from your life that will be deployed to prove that argument

Dora Dueck did not set out to write this book. Rather, she wrote individual essays, usually for different publications or presentations, and she wrote a longish piece “In the House of My Pilgrimage” that was not long enough to be published alone but was too long for journal publication. The obvious solution was to place recent personal essays and the monograph together. Once assembled, the essays had to speak to each other and find a thread that ties them together. The thread Dora herself identifies is Change:

The essence of life, it seems to me, is change—sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous,
sometimes chosen, sometimes uninvited, but change nevertheless. Growth,
turn, turnover, conversion, adjustment, deconstruction and reconstruction,
loss, gain, whatever name one may use for change, the very process of living
creates a story full of plot.

In the first essay, “Notes Toward an Autobiography,” the author compares memoir writing to cooking and moves through her life in the third person, as Henry Adams chose to do. Eschewing nostalgia and too much subjectivity seems to be built into Dora’s character. She approaches the genre tentatively but with determination to learn about it the way she learned about cooking. Sitting at her desk, she can  imagine

What a flurry of peeling and mixing and stirring that
would be! What clouds of flour and heat! Long days of it, and a great
deal of reading—and re-reading—to grasp the genre of subjectivity.

The “notes” she takes in this essay show an exacting, determined, frame of mind. And they illustrate that, like Rudy Wiebe in Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest, Dora will use the materials of her youth, her culture, her faith as ingredients for the ideas that have been visiting her since her youth. She is a poet and philosopher more naturally than a memoirist — someone more happily at home in the first person. Her work therefore has a muscular quality that will satisfy even those who claim to despise the genre. And it will deepen the experience of reading for those of us who love reading about other lives.

The biggest change in Dora’s own life in recent years has been widowhood and moving from Winnipeg to British Columbia. The book is dedicated to her husband Helmut, 1951-2021, and contains one essay about coming to terms with his death and the monograph, set in Paraguay, in which he is vividly alive, young and handsome.

The title essay “Return Stroke” is another kind of memoiristic writing — the biography of a near relative (father-in-law). Papa, as he was called by his family, had an early trauma that influenced his life and all those around him. A bolt of lightning stuck the pioneer homestead his family lived in. The lightning killed his mother and paralyzed him.  The author explains that the electrical charges that strike the earth are called strokes, and the light they generate, the heat and the thunder that follows, is called a return stroke. In the essay, Dora craves knowledge of Papa, who died later in life before they had a chance to meet. When she finds his diaries, lightning strikes, and at the end she is able to see in him not just an upright, commanding Mennonite, who built things and raised a family faithfully, but also a fellow writer. “A thought like a jolt zigzagged its way” into her consciousness that, through writing, the two who never met in life, were indeed meeting intellectually and spiritually. A return stroke if ever there was one.

This is a book to savor. Read it carefully, the way it was created. I am quite sure, if you do, that you too will feel jolts of insight.

 

 

Shirley Showalter

9 Comments

  1. Marlena Fiol on April 28, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    This is quite an endorsement!!!

    • Shirley on April 28, 2022 at 3:11 pm

      Thank you, Marlena. I thought of you when I read the monograph at the end set in Paraguay. Do you know Dora, by any chance? I think you would catch nuances that escape a Swiss Mennonite like me. Also, do you know there is a Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen in October? Maybe we three could meet up there? I have not registered yet.

  2. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on April 28, 2022 at 6:54 pm

    I very much look forward to reading this book written by my friend Dora. You’ve done an excellent job of reviewing it, Shirley!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 28, 2022 at 8:40 pm

      Thank you, Elfrieda. I think you will love it.

  3. Anneli Epp on April 28, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Shirley,

    Thanks for your response to my photograph which was chosen as the cover of Dora’s book. It’s called Converging.

    It was a memorable experience to walk the seaside of Botanical Beach. The photograph is of a rock face, representing hundreds if not thousands of years of movement and erosion, sea spray, plant life, etc.

    Annelieppphotography

    • Shirley Showalter on April 28, 2022 at 8:28 pm

      Thank you, Anneli, for giving us this additional information about the gorgeous cover. It seems to me a perfect complement to the themes of the book.

  4. Maren C. Tirabassi on April 29, 2022 at 6:45 am

    It sounds like a wonderful book to read. I am engaged in reading and throwing away diaries from 1986 on and chances are I will be mostly finished by the time this comes out which will be a good time to read it.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 29, 2022 at 7:24 am

      Maren, interesting that you are throwing away diaries. I am sure you gave that issue careful thought. In the”Return Stroke” chapter, Dora discovers that Papa, the father-in-law she never met, kept diaries and that they were still available. She was so happy to have them. Without them, she could never have experienced the epiphany that connection is possible beyond the grave and on this side of the grave. I hope you write about why you don’t want to leave your diaries as a legacy to others. II’s an issue I can see both ways right now.

  5. Melodie on April 29, 2022 at 7:41 am

    I’m glad to know about this book and will look for it soon. You are right about the cover–looking like a globe, but not quite.

    I have a mixed feeling about diaries–most filled with daily grind, but with occasional precious glimpses of something you didn’t know.

    And you were/are the champion of memoir–in doing all the research/reading you did before or as you wrote Blush! Thanks for this enlightening (on many fronts) review.

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