On reading memoirs
‘ve read very few memoirs in my not-so-short lifetime (Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Wharton’s A Backward Glance, I can’t think of any others, but I’m sure there are more I’ve read) because, as a rule, I stay as far away from nonfiction as possible. But I recently read a book called Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt by a woman named Marvin V. Arnett. A woman named Marvin? She explains that it is a namesake of a beautiful friend of her mother’s, another woman named Marvin.
The memoir traces Arnett’s life during her elementary school years, circa the Depression. It gives a
perspective into a black community salted with other races (for instance, Polish immigrants and descendants play roles in Arnett’s life) in Detroit during this era. And there is a sense of community that is lost today in Detroit-sized cities; I bet one would be hard pressed to find a community like Arnett’s, where everyone knew everyone and took care of everyone.
One thing I really enjoyed is that Arnett didn’t shy away from
uncomfortable areas in her childhood where she was the bad guy. Being a voracious reader, Arnett
finished all of the books in the children’s section of the library save
for one. She brought this to one of the clerk’s attention, who then
told the head librarian, Mrs. McMillian. McMillian decided to give
Arnett a restricted adult card, stating that they would have to monitor
the books Arnett chose. She’s about twelve at this time, so her interests, like most twelve-year-olds, turn to sexual relations:
The time I spent at the library increased significantly. I would scour
the shelves for hours, selecting books, reading excerpts, always on the
alert for books that would increase my knowledge of a certain
subject–which I knew little about–the nature of love relationships
between men and women. I knew that the books that touched on this
subject would be off-limits to withdraw, but I soon realized that,
while I was in the library, I could read anything I wanted to.
Later, a new clerk who didn’t know about the restrictions was
left alone at the desk, so Arnett took a chance and “quickly approached
the desk, sandwiching The Captain Takes a Wife,” which had a sex scene
she scanned quickly in the library, “between two other novels.” While
she was at school, her father found the book and confronted her with
it, asking her where she got it from. She told her father about her
restricted card which was “forced” on her, blamed the fact that she had
the book on the librarians, and cried for being exposed to such filth.
Of course, her father took her to the library and confronted the head
librarian. He said, with little Marvin Arnett at his side, to Mrs.
McMillian “I don’t know how you can straighten this out with Marvin.
I’ll leave it up to you to try to explain why you forced that
restricted adult card on her against her will.” After that, the
librarians treated Arnett cooly and scanned the books she brought to
the counter slowly. Soon, she stopped going to the library all together.
I’m sure in other memoirs, authors admit horrible acts they committed,
but it’s still fun to read them. I can’t really remember Angelou’s book
(I read it years and year (and years!) ago), but I remember something
from Wharton’s book that is probably not as embarrassing. When she
asked her mother what happens on her wedding night with Teddy Wharton,
her mother said, [paraphrased. poorly] “You’ve seen statutes” and
called her silly (I think). But that’s not bad on Wharton’s part; it’s
her mother who committed the ill deed.