Richard Gilbert’s Memoir Shepherd: A Masterpiece of Rumination
Did you know that there are 150 ruminant species living on earth?
Sheep, goats, and cattle, however, play a special role. About 10,000 years ago they helped bring us agriculture and the familiar landscape of pastures and meadows.
I learned that fact from one of my favorite guides to memoir, Richard Gilbert, whose posts and comments have appeared on this site for the last three years.
Richard himself is an ruminant, a writer who grazes down to the roots and then chews on ideas until they yield nurture.
In his forthcoming book (May 1 from Michigan State University Press) Shepherd: A Memoir, he ruminates on three archetypal quest themes:
- the son’s search for his father
- the search for a lost bucolic paradise
- a spiritual quest for invisible wholeness and connection
I. The Son’s Quest for the Father
The story begins before the first page. We learn, in chapter one, that the author’s paternal grandfather
committed suicide took his own life years ago. Something immediately “clicks,” bringing all other descriptions of the author’s father, Charles Churchill Gilbert, into the foreground. The suicide happened when Charles was fourteen. By the time of this story, which takes place after 1996, Charles has died. As a father, he was both charismatic (when in public) and distant (to his sons, at least, a “stone face”).
The father also lost an inheritance by buying two cattle farms, never able to make them financially sustainable. He was no slouch, however, but a man of action and dreams, ahead of his time in some ways, able to make contributions to aviation and agriculture even when he couldn’t save his farms. His son Richard admired him.
At the impressionable age of six, author Richard moved with his family away from the second farm, the lost paradise in Georgia, to what many would have considered a better place: Florida and the middle-class suburban life that surrounded the space industry in its prime. From then on, Richard would have a dream, perhaps an obsession, to return to the land.
In mythic language, he wants to find the holy grail and restore the land to fecundity. He will do this in some ways for his father and in some ways in opposition to his father, besting him at his own game in the classic ways of sons. He will live to tell the story. He will write a book.
Of course, Charles Gilbert, the father, was also an author — of a niche publication still available online: Success without soil: how to grow plants by hydroponics. The memoir Shepherd could have been called Success With Lambs. Fortunately, it wasn’t. But I do note that its Amazon category is not memoir but horticulture!
Throughout the book the reader yearns along with the son for the father’s gaze, touch, verbal approval. It never arrives in fullness. Even the final good-bye fails to satisfy. The father’s heart gives out, but the son still cannot reach him:
I fell on him, kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly, unmoving, his face slightly turned from our first embrace (291).
II. Paradise Lost, Found, Regained
At the center of this narrative lies two farms. First there is that lost farm in Georgia, the one that the boy Richard lamented and the man Richard tried to find through the purchase of a magical but run-down property in Appalachian Ohio in 1996.
By this time Richard was a middle-aged man and a father, married to a woman he met when both of them were graduate students at Ohio State University. Kathy, unlike Richard, grew up on a farm and held no romantic illusions about it.
Nevertheless, Kathy works “like a horse” and applies herself to leadership in academics, eventually becoming a college president. She has a gift not only for working hard but for seeing opportunity. She finds the seventeen acre farm, ironically called Lost Valley, and she suggests the strategy of bidding an extra $101, which is enough to make them winners.
Throughout the book, Richard ignores her sage advice only at his own peril. And she is there to help in every project he initiates, smoothing relationships with neighbors and their two children, and offering plenty of labor.
But Richard is the one who eventually finds the project that will bring in income and make him a shepherd. He settles on assembling a herd of Katahdin hair sheep. He learns, the hard way every time, how to purchase, select, breed, tend, feed, and evaluate his herd.
Coming from a farm myself, and having investigated farm inheritance issues in my own memoir, I can heartily endorse Richard and his father’s conclusion about farming. You can only make a go of it if you inherit the land or if you scale up from small to large or both.
If you want to know just how many adventures old buildings, animals, and town/gown issues in a small town can produce, read the book! You will veer from one near-catastrophe to another. And you will learn to love sheep, especially the one pictured above, Freckles.
Along the way, make sure you pause to appreciate Richard’s gifts as a writer. His imagery will pull you into his cave, where you will find, for example, “jagged stalagmites of greasy mud” (32).
His exquisite braiding of three different stories: childhood, early adulthood, and life on the farm may at times confuse you, but never confuses him. I suggest you create a timeline for his life as he distributes clues.
III. Wholeness. The Mystic’s Quest.
“The animals, their reproductive cycles, the pastures, and the farmer’s efforts move in turn with the seasons, with the entire tilting, spinning planet.” (55)
Throughout the book, the author offers us glimpses of his soul. Behind all his longings — for the approval of his family, especially his father, for the chance to create and live in a rural paradise, and for the achievement of a work of art in this book — lies one big longing: he wants to feel himself part of the “entire tilting, spinning planet.”
No writer can do more than suggest this kind of union. And too much yearning turns the words into abstract mush. Richard always stays with the concrete image but manages to suggest invisible forces beyond.
In fact, this book contains one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever encountered. It sent a shiver through me and rewarded me for close reading. As a reader, I got to put the whole together myself. The words are suggestive, transcendent, and yet grounded. I defy you to find a better, more electric, ending.
And I’ve got to believe that somewhere Charles Churchill Gilbert is saying, “Well done!”
What else would you like to know about Richard, memoir, this book? Are you also a ruminant?
I am so pleased, touched, and astounded by the discernment in your review of my book—its first! I got kind of choked up reading it.
Honestly I did not know how my story would come off—I am too close to it!—and editors and friend-readers have tried to help but they are part of the inner circle. I guess I kind of knew the risk was my trying to do too much, too many threads, and it’s nice to know that mostly worked.
Your kind and generous assessment means a great deal. Thank you.
Richard, I now know another reason why that sentence about your father at the end touched me.
As I read this essay again, I remembered these words of son yearning from Luke 15: King James Bible
“And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
So glad my arrows hit their targets, Richard. I could find these themes easily only because you worked so hard to place them in their right places and then worked even harder to make it all look easy! I wish you great success — with soil and without! Hope you’ll come back to answer any questions that may, ahem, crop up.
Excellent review, Shirley. I’ve learned to a little bit about Richard through his astute commentary on your own blog posts.
Of course, stories with settings on farm-land appeal to me as a farm girl. Maybe that’s why I have enjoyed reading Willa Cather and Kathleen Norris so much. Now I’m reading Phyllis Tickle’s The Shaping of a Life: A Spiritual Landscape, grounded in the grazing lands of East Tennessee (sheep and cattle).
But it’s time for a masculine perspective, so Richard’s book goes on my Must Read list. Richard, because you are a scholar, I know the book will be intellectually stimulating and because you see connections, both mythic and real, all of your threads (as you say) will weave a coherent pattern. I trust Shirley’s assessment of your book. Above all, I wish you much success in your imminent book’s publication.
Thanks so much, Marian. I will add Tickle’s book to my list. By the same token, I highly recommend a new memoir of the land I’ve just read: Julene Bair’s The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning.
Marian, I feel confident that you will enjoy this book and learn from it. I smiled several times when I recognized a braided structure, something that Richard has explained and illustrated several times on his blog and also “me now” interacting with “me then.”
I’m glad you are exchanging more delightful rural memoirs. I would add Michael Perry to the list. Fun and funny. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2772479.Michael_Perry
I love, Love, LOVE this review — absolutely love it! And I thoroughly enjoyed the word picture you painted of Richard:
“…a writer who grazes down to the roots and then chews on ideas until they yield nurture.”
Thank you, Laurie. You know how to make a reviewer feel wonderful, both with your kind words and with your ability to focus on the sentence that was most fun to write. 🙂
Shirley, when I read your review I was wondering about the fact that there are only three ruminant species living on this earth. Hardy, my amazing editor spouse asked me “what about giraffes?” So I searched on Wikipedia and I quote:
There are about 150 species of ruminants, which include both domestic and wild species. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, …
Just thought you should know. Your review is excellent!
Thank you, Elfrieda and Hardy! Good catch. I went back to the book, reread it, added the information from you and clarified above. Here’s the direct quote from Richard: “Humans made their significant transition from hunting to agriculture about ten thousand years ago with the taming of three ruminant species” sheep, goats, and cattle. These animals and their wild kin, not scythes or mowers, created the pastoral landscapes that humans seem instinctively to crave” (56).
Glad you liked the review. And also that you sent me back to those two sentences again.
Still chewing. . . . 🙂
Yep, I was thinking of domestic ruminants—as a good farmer would!—and didn’t mean to exclude our friends the giraffes . . . Which, to be honest, did not enter my mind!
I’ve been waiting for this book and am excited to know it’s coming very soon. I was a shepherd once myself and loved the country life caring for my flock through the cycles of their lives. It was one of the highest points in my life when I discovered just how much we are one with all of the creatures on this earth.
Great post, Shirley, and thanks for bring us the book, Richard.
Thanks so much, Joan, from one shepherd and book person to another!
Joan, I know you will love Shepherd. Thanks for saying that you are looking forward to it. You can pre-order on Amazon now. I think I’m going to see if I can upload this review also.
Richard, Joan and I share a mountain. You might be interested in Joan’s recent post that mentions her book about a special kind of rug hooking. Like your father, she found a niche audience.
This is slightly off your main topic, but maybe something for others to ruminate on: When we worked on the documentary Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide we were thoroughly indoctrinated by families and experts interviewed about how painful it can be for families to hear the common phrase “committed suicide” which you used in this post—which was an otherwise excellent post! We learned it is better to say “died by suicide” or “took his/her own life” because committed always makes it sound like a crime, which maybe it was at one time.
Have you heard this reasoning before? I’m on a mission on this. Normally I wouldn’t critique a scholar and writer of your stature!! Hoping you’ll take this in the good spirit of helpfulness it is intended, or come back at me!
Thanks, Melodie, for another great correction. One of the things I like about blogging is that it strengthens and enlarges my heart and voice. I used the phrase thoughtlessly. I hope I won’t do so again. And I hope everyone reading the post will be equally challenged.
Now for the question. Should I edit the post itself, do you think? I did so on the issue of ruminants above, which was a factual error I made.
I am going to see if I can edit with strikethrough. If I can, I believe that will be the best way to educate myself and others.
I found the strike-through button! I don’t like to read posts filled with those, although I suppose we are technically supposed to make all edits this way.
However, in this case, it seemed perfect.
Thanks, Melodie! I appreciate that you reached out to me privately first, but I’m glad you helped me change this. I apologize to anyone who has dealt closely with suicide.
Language should always be used with care. Any scholar or writer worth her salt agrees!
Hmm, I haven’t used the strike through button myself. I learned something too. You are most gracious. Of course!
Melodie, I was made aware of this concern while working on my book, and avoided “committed suicide”—I think I use other constructions in all cases. It seems a small thing, but look at the difference in using “survivor” instead of “victim”: labels must be used with care, as they carry judgments and implications.
So glad Richard chimed in here to confirm the importance of this choice and his intentional use of alternatives.
I just finished Shepherd and loved it, and was struggling with how to put into words all the reasons why….
Thank you for saying, so eloquently, much of what I was thinking. You’ve given me inspiration from which to spring forward, and I’ll send people back to you to read this. Stunning! And so valuable for others who want to learn to write well.
So glad you too loved Shepherd and that the review spoke for you.
Richard has been a teacher of mine, so it thrills me that you find this review useful to your own writing.
Feel free to explore this blog for other reviews and other memoir writing issues and tips. Best wishes as you write.
I’ll definitely be doing that, Shirley. I’ve just followed your blog (I’ve seen your comments on Richard’s blog, but I hadn’t “met” your blog yet).
I’m working on a series for my own blog about writers whose blogs are useful to other writers. I’m profiling Richard at the end of May, I’ve got two others lined up for early June, and I’ve been searching (unsuccessfully) for one other writer (to make it 4) whose blog fits my theme and whose sensibility compliments mine. It looks like I’ve found her (you). How would you feel about my profiling you in late June?
I’d be delighted, Tracy. You can find me on my FB page here: https://www.facebook.com/ShirleyHersheyShowalter/
and at shirley.showalter (at) gmail.com
Thank you for the request. I look forward to hearing more from you.
[…] Shirley Hershey Showalter’s insightful review of Shepherd, and then re-read Shepherd, paying special attention to the quest themes and the braided structure […]