Book Review: Jennifer Lauck’s Memoir, “Blackbird.”


Jennifer Lauck’s memoir Blackbird is an inspiring and riveting literary debut. Her five year old self opens the story, zooming in from her town all the way into her mother’s bedroom. Things are described the way a child would describe them: “Big Purple Grape” for the couch, “California King” for the bed. The child sees a world that is at once both hard to understand and unnecessarily wrought with placation. Her perspective, her reactions, and
her insight are all cloaked in childlike innocence, assuring the reader that this is a reliable narrator.
Lauck not only uses the voice of a child, but writes in first-person, giving the narrative immediacy and informality and providing the reader a more intimate connection to the protagonist. Lauck writes: “Daddy stands with his
arms crossed and then he presses his fingers against his mouth, presses a smile on his lips. I make my mouth smile.” In this way, things have not happened in the past, they are happening “now.” The reader waits, just
as the narrator waits, to see how her life will continue to unfold, minute by minute, hour by hour.
Blackbird is written with a technique called “dangerous writing,” which describes a scene not through direct emotion, but through physical detail. In this way, when a character looks away, looks at the floor, or looks another
character directly in the eye, the reader can interpret the meaning without being told explicitly. When Jenny’s brother Bryan (B.J.) gets red in the face, the reader knows he is angry. When Jenny wipes tears away, the reader knows she is upset. This provides the reader a sense of accomplishment that he or she has been able to link “x” descriptor with “x” emotion. It also sets each scene more vividly than would emotional descriptors alone. Readers come to their own conclusions based on a scene rather than being told what the scene represents, and the detail of the scene resonates long after it’s described on the page.
In Blackbird, Lauck uses short paragraphs interspersed with dialogue. The dialogue itself is short, not in overall duration but in the length of each line. Lauck’s characters do not make speeches; they speak as anyone else
would speak—hesitatingly, self-consciously, reservedly:
“You are Janet’s daughter,” Auntie Carol says, “it’s your job to hold her treasures. It’s your job to remember her life.”
The room feels heavy and my face stings with tears that I won’t cry, not now, not here. “Do you understand me? Auntie Carol says. I look at the floor, the bed, at my hands in her hands. “But I’m not,” I whisper, “not really.”
Auntie Carol clears her throat and looks into my eyes, her voice low. “You are,” Auntie Carol says, “you really are.”
As this exemplifies, the scenes in this memoir are carried along just as much by what the characters say, as by what they don’t say. The silence between speakers can be just as telling, and just as full of emotion, as what is eventually spoken.

Lauck’s use of immediacy and of a child narrator does present some difficulties, however. While a young child will often, by nature, be truthful about the events that are happening around her, she can also see things differently from how they really are, especially when decades pass between the living and the telling of the story. Lauck has received criticism from members of her family, who see her truth as different from their own. For example, the stepmother who forced Jenny to move her princess bedroom set from one house to another insists that the walk was just one block instead of ten. The reader must ask his- or herself which is more reliable: a child who often sees the spaces between things more pronounced than they really are, or a family member of whom negative things are being written. Since this question is a difficult one to answer, the reader must also ask if the exact number of blocks a child must carry her bedroom set is more important to the story than the act itself.
Memoirists by definition wrestle with the fine line between fact and fiction. Fact will always be dependent upon the viewpoint of an individual, and fiction will always originate from some amount of fact. Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters, defines the memoir as “an artistically rendered, nonfiction narrative about a portion of a life, based on memory and the author’s interpretation of the past.” If Lauck had chosen to write her manuscript as fiction, it perhaps would not have resonated as strongly with the general public, because the public wouldn’t be aware that it was reading about the life of a specific individual.
Lauck chose to tell her story in memoir form, following in the footsteps of authors who had inspired her, such as Frank McCourt and Maya Angelou. She uses her childhood voice strongly to create for the reader a life which has resonated with her for years after the fact. In telling her story, she connects with the little girls in many of us—little girls with similar experiences, who also have a story to tell.
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Washington Square Press (August 28, 2001)
Language: English
ISBN: 0671042564
Article Submitted by: Shannon Luders-Manuel, © 2006