Memorable Memoirs

"Whether telling us about the Spirit in the South or the crumbling atheism of a Chinese immigrant, these books provide windows into others' lives."
Last week we talked about the memoir industry and its flacks, who seem to believe that unless they "sell" the genre with inflated claims it will disappear, like an idiom gone stale or a name that's out of fashion: Elmer, say, or Myrtle. But there's no call for such anxiety. Reading memoirs is an end in itself. You can live without them—you don't need to read a memoir today or next week or ever—but your life will be smaller, your imagination more cramped if you don't.

This week we touch on four exemplary memoirs. Each would merit a column of its own; I hope these glimpses will prompt you to read more. Every sentence in each one of these four books bears the mark of its authorial DNA. Here are four samples, a taste of four lives, like the trailers for coming attractions at the cineplex.

* * *


Pelzer, South Carolina. Autumn 1961. Phyllis Tickle has been living in this mill town since 1958, brought by her husband's work. Sam's a physician. Later that year they will go with their two young daughters to Memphis, where he will begin a residency in internal medicine and she will be a lecturer at Rhodes College.

Living next door is Earl King, the pastor of the Presbyterian church they attend, a "straight-line Calvinist" and a missionary in Africa for more than 35 years, recently retired because of his wife's poor health. He's a displaced person, not easy to talk to, but deeper than he seems at first. On a cool, sunny afternoon, conversation has turned to Africa, as it has a way of doing with him, and all of a sudden he's saying something outrageous:

"Every faith's got its charlatans, but the real witch doctors scorn such conniving. A real witch doctor kills by the spirit, not tricks." There was the longest pause on record just there. ...
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June
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