Review — Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy Johnson

cover trespasses a memoirHow does home define a person? Does it seep into skin; into speech; into society? Lacy Johnson’s Trespasses: a Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2012) explores these questions as she examines her struggle to escape home in order to discover it. In Trespasses, Johnson weaves stories of three generations into her own journey, creating a thread that fastens her to proud roots growing up in rural Missouri. Through a beautifully constructed collection of personal narratives, the voices of grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers emerge in a deep, poetically-framed glimpse of life in the Great Plains from the early 1940s to the present. Each story is relayed through vivid language detailing tender and exquisite details: the pleasure derived from eating vegetables fresh from the garden to the gentle glance shared between a grandfather and grandson.

Trespasses begins with Johnson’s mission, leaving Houston where she is studying for her Ph.D., to return to Missouri on a quest to interview her family members. The book centers around life on the family farm, alternating between stories from her grandmother, her mother, and finally the author and her siblings. Johnson explores how class, race and gender shape the two farm families with which she shares her lineage. In one fold, her grandmother marries the milk tester. In another, her sister is shunned for marrying a black man, and stares chide Johnson as she walks into a grocery store decorated with tattoos and a pregnant belly.

Though she escapes the constriction of her rural upbringing, Johnson returns for the purposes of this book and realizes, despite her academic achievements, she still falls under the stereotypical umbrella of white trash. “Because although I’ve learned to correct the ways in which my native idiom is often ungrammatical, I’ve also learned that there’s something about my experience growing up in a poor farming town in the Great Plains that gets lost in the translation to standardized academic verse.”

In favor of the poetic undercurrent in her writing style, a notes section follows the memoir. While helpful for filling in anecdotal details of time, place and backstory, the breaks are distracting and interrupt the narrative flow. The writing is strong, the story is present, yet the construction of the piece is cumbersome, which, at times makes for a difficult read. Johnson also employs multiple point of view shifts bringing the reader from first to third and even several sections of second person narration. Several breaks in the narrative provide a conversationally written history.

By the end of Trespasses, barring any predetermined beliefs about the Great Plains states, it is obvious in Johnson’s work that so many of us have been shaped by similar experiences, the same threads that, woven together, create the tapestry we call family. Pick up Trespasses if you enjoy reading memoirs that hinge on the establishment of race and class, or if you have a particular interest in the history of the Great Plains states or uniquely constructed creative nonfiction.

Rating: 4 stars

Joy Mushacke SmithA former print journalist, Joy Mushacke Smith is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Wilkes University. Although she misses her childhood home on Long Island, Joy enjoys the adventure of teaching middle school English in Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband, dogs and a pot-belly pig. She is currently working on her first YA novel titled The Problem with Lasagna.
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