Thursday, February 05, 2009

Monica Kidd, any other woman: an uncommon biography

What is it about this story of my great-grandparents that offers so much but gives so little? Why do I persist in this search, despite every indication there is nothing to be found? Why am I secretly relieved when I find, again and again, that nothing has stood up to the constant weathering of time? Is it because I’m spared the old cliché of the facts getting in the way of a good story? Am I happy to have my low expectations met? I don’t think so. There must be something of me in all of this that I am eager to know. I can’t ignore the fact that I am writing this at a time when my own identity is so uncertain: at the age of thirty-three, I have quit my job as a reporter and will begin medical school in a month.
I was very taken by Monica Kidd’s new memoir, any other woman: an uncommon biography (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2008). Written over a period of a decade, Kidd [see her 12 or 20 questions here] returns from Newfoundland to her roots in Alberta, and works to find information on her great-grandparents, Andrew Zak and Rosalia Patala, who arrived in the Canadian west in the early twentieth century. Not only a book through what she has found, Kidd writes her memoir out of the search itself, moving through interviews with strangers and family members, explorations through small Alberta mining towns, provincial and local archives, and even to Slovakia, looking to discover confirmations on their points-of-origin. Like any good genealogist, its not just the names and the dates she seeks, but the narrative that holds all the pieces together, working her way through discoveries, correcting and confirming family stories, and her own disappointments. Part of what makes this memoir is the movement of discovery, telling the story of finding, searching and even not finding pieces of this family story, eventually finding enough to be able to piece much of what her grandparent’s lives might have been, meeting in the west and losing a child, moving towns as worked moved them, and the children that followed. Through all of this, near the end, Kidd makes this admission:

Here is where I should say that I was adopted. Rosalia is my great-grandmother by arrangement, not blood. But genetics has nothing to do with the power this land holds over me, just as it has for anyone who has ever longed for a piece of earth. Without Rosalia, my own life would not have unfolded the way it has. Without this land, there would have been no Rosalia. Therefore, I choose to call this my own. She’s one of ours.

What’s so special about this place? Nothing. Everything.
What I find interesting in that is how she has laid her claim on this history, this ancestry, made just as much by the facts of these stories as anyone else would have, blood or not. I could claim the same myself, being both adopted and the self-proclaimed family genealogist, moving through over three hundred pages of nearly fifty unrelated McLennan and MacLennan lines throughout Stormont and Glengarry Counties. What makes Kidd, or anyone, work so hard to place her own lineage? Still, this is one of the few places in the book where Kidd talks about any of herself at all, keeping her own life at a distance, focusing instead on the search for great-grandparents, and her great-grandmother Rosalia, specifically. We know she begins the book as a journalist, and ends the book as a medical resident, and that the book was the journey of a decade, but otherwise, we know little else.

any other woman: an uncommon biography is an extremely compelling book, and one that I had difficulty putting down, managing to read through in a single sitting. More than the story of an individual, or a couple, Kidd knows that to learn a people is to have to learn a place, and Kidd has done that, moving through towns along the western part of Alberta and into British Columbia, working through mining and even Turtle Mountain, the slide that took out Frank back in 1904 before she headed into eastern Europe. I just hope that this isn’t her last foray into creative non-fiction.

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