Filling empty pages: A review of When Women Were Birds

  • When Women Were Birds


When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Terry Tempest Williams
224 pages, hardcover: $24.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Sarah Crichton Books), 2012.

Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds, resonates with her signature gift -- the ability to salvage beauty from great heartbreak. Like her acclaimed memoir Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, When Women Were Birds is also a brave and deeply personal story. In Refuge, Williams reflected on her mother's death from cancer and the simultaneous flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Utah. Now, 20 years later, Williams reveals another haunting facet of her family history.

Williams' mother died at age 54. Now 54 herself, Williams discloses what her mother shared one week before she died: "I am leaving you with all my journals. … But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone." When the time came, Williams found "three shelves of beautiful clothbound books." One by one, she opened the journals, only to find that each was completely blank.

Leavened with honesty and introspection, When Women Were Birds is a 54-chapter exploration of Williams' pursuit of her own voice -- her lifelong determination to "speak the truth of our lives at all costs." Williams takes readers through her struggle to understand her mother's unfilled journals. Describing watershed moments in her own life, such as how a speech therapist corrected her lisp in fourth grade, she articulates each insight like the poet that she is. "I did not find my voice -- my voice found me through the compassion of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us through the elegance and lyricism of language."

Williams candidly recalls anecdotes from her experiences as a daughter, granddaughter, spouse, teacher, and the mother of a recently adopted child. She describes symbolic encounters with birds:  An owl foreshadows danger, a hawk reminds her how death can swoop down any moment, and a painted bunting provides comfort in grief. She devotes chapters to artists and activists who have inspired her, including painter Gustave Courbet, composer John Cage, and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai.

True to form, Williams stitches this patchwork of topics together using a single thread fastened to family and place. As she does so, she leads readers across the vivid landscape of her life -- to the California seashore, the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho, and of course, back to the Utah wildlands she calls home.

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