Reconstructing a volatile past

  • A trailer in Quartzsite, Arizona.

    Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber
 

Son of a Gun: A Memoir
Justin St. Germain
256 pages, hardcover:
$26.
Random House, 2013.

Murdered in her trailer just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sensationalized on TV news, labeled a "black widow" by a marshal -- Justin St. Germain's mother was judged for her lifestyle both in life and in death. A "serial divorcée" prone to involvement with abusive men, the former paratrooper is the elusive central figure in St. Germain's unsparing debut. The author, a former Wallace Stegner fellow and now a professor at the University of New Mexico, avoids whitewashing his family's flaws while revealing his conflicted yet undeniable love for his strong-minded mother, who died when he was 20.

Hoping to understand how a capable single parent ended up in such a volatile relationship, St. Germain explores his childhood memories, remembering the funeral, its aftermath and his stepfather -- the main suspect, who later committed suicide. He revisits Tucson, where he was living when she was killed; Tombstone, Ariz., where he was raised; and Gleeson, 12 miles east of Tombstone, a "ghost town, one of hundreds rotting in the rural West, remote and dangerous," where the crime took place. St. Germain recreates conversations about his mother with her former partners and the detective assigned to the case; he also weaves facts about Wyatt Earp into a startling rumination on Arizona's enduring gun culture. But perhaps the strongest moments detail rural Arizona landscapes that mirror the hardscrabble inhabitants, from the "busted copper camp way out in the desert" to the "land rolling black to every horizon" smelling of "dirt and greasewood."

St. Germain speculates on whether Tombstone, which prides itself on a legendary gunfight, has helped foster a culture of male violence and victim blaming. "If my mother made a wrong choice," he says, "it was moving to a town obsessed with Wyatt Earp, where a former deputy would kill her, and other men would say she deserved it" –– a bold conclusion that distills history into a sentence, linking trauma with larger questions about the culture in a way guaranteed to provoke discussion.

Secondary themes are woven into the main story: the guilt the author feels as he begins to forget details about his mother; the way he uses reading and writing to transcend what he sees as a "white trash" existence; and his unresolved anger over the manner of her death, all of which build toward the aching realization that no amount of reconstructing the past could explain the unthinkable, or reveal what drew his mother toward his stepfather.

With its unadorned prose and a brooding atmosphere, this is not a simple tale of bereavement, but an affecting account of domestic violence and its lingering consequences. From an unforgettable vantage, St. Germain considers early adulthood, and in the process decides what kind of man he wants to become.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz