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Know the West

The creation of wholeness


Finding Beauty in a Broken World
Terry Tempest Williams
416 pages, $26.
Pantheon Books, 2008.

When asked to accompany artist Lily Yeh to Rwanda to help create a memorial to the country's genocide victims, author Terry Tempest Williams initially refused. Perhaps best known for her book Refuge, which draws a profound emotional parallel between her mother's losing bout with cancer and the simultaneous flooding of Utah's Bear River bird refuge, Williams told herself she had seen enough death. Her brother had just succumbed to cancer as well, and she did not want to visit a country that had suffered through genocide. But she went anyway. "I came to Rwanda," she writes, "to step over my fears and find out for myself how a people who carry the history of genocide in their hearts not only begin to heal but move forward in the name of forgiveness and acceptance."

Though by far the most poignant aspect of her latest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Williams' Rwanda experience is only part of the story. The book interweaves her time in Italy learning how to create mosaics with two weeks in Bryce Canyon observing endangered Utah prairie dogs and, ultimately, her time in Rwanda helping create a mosaic for a memorial to victims of the country's ethnic violence. These narratives exemplify Williams' broad idea of community — a web connecting all living things, in which human beings are responsible for the well-being of all species.

Though sprinkled with insight and poetics, her observations of the prairie dogs occasionally read like field notes. The terseness gets a bit tedious: "Unmarked baby—OUT—12:07pm at N9."

The majority of the book, however, is filled with the emotional honesty and grace we've come to expect from Williams, who has 14 works of memoir, poetry and natural history to her credit. Stories of entire villages massacred and neighbors brutally killing neighbors combine with stories of people standing up against all odds to protect one another. Art and community have the power to heal even the deepest wounds. "Through the meditation of mosaic," she writes, "both ... perpetrators and victims, masons and mosaicists, are working towards a unity of expression by taking that which is broken and creating something whole.

"These tiles, now the structure of mosaic, are the fragments of war reimagined."