Nonfiction Reviews

I Need to Tell You

Cathryn Vogeley
WiDo Publishing ($17.95)

Cathryn Vogeley uses three hallmarks of effective storytelling in her memoir, I Need to Tell You: vulnerability, uncertainty, and vivid scenes. Consider the opening paragraphs:

My eyes squeezed shut while the ting of metal instruments broke the silence. As if my chest had lost its elastic, I breathed in short, tight spurts. The ceiling tiles with their tiny holes looked down on me as my chin tilted upward.
Exam gloves snapped; metal wheels moaned across the cold floor.
Dr. Franklin stood from behind the sheet.
“No doubt about it. You’re pregnant.”

Vogeley, unmarried in 1968, discovers she is pregnant after her first year of nursing school. Her boyfriend, Gavin, says he can’t get married—this pregnancy must be kept secret.  Vogeley’s Catholic mother arranges for her to see her priest cousin Edward, to talk about "the problem,” and the pair arrange for her to be admitted to Roselia, a home for unwed mothers.

When Vogeley goes two weeks past her due date, she suggests to another Roselia resident that they jog in the winter courtyard to induce labor. Her description of the gunmetal sky and the thin layer of snow on the ground pull the reader into the frigid scene. We can see her “gripping both edges of my navy wool coat . . . schlumping along the sidewalk, hands under my belly, a bushel basket with a floating watermelon.”

The girls of Roselia are warned not to look at or hold their infants for fear they will want to keep them. But when Vogeley is handed her baby in the taxi back to Roselia, she can’t help but look at her daughter. “Those moments in the cab, less than the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, were our entire lifetime together.”

As time passes and Vogeley begins to tell her story, she discovers the people in her life are accepting. Her sister shows compassion and love, and her next boyfriend, Jimmy, doesn’t seem to care. The couple are mismatched, but Vogeley’s urge to be married overwhelms her doubts. “Just the designation of ‘Mrs.’ before my name would give me status, announce that someone wanted me, and allow me the right to have a legitimate child,” she states.

Vogeley has two more girls, and she throws herself into being a wife, mother, and homemaker while working as a nurse. But she knows there is something missing in her life. She tells herself she cannot think of her first baby ever again, but the haunting guilt remains. As her children get older and begin separating from her, she feels increasingly alienated from her life, and after hitting a low point, she starts college classes and convinces Jimmy to go to counseling with her. He doesn’t engage, and they divorce.

Vogeley begins to build a new life, first achieving certification as an ostomy nurse, then a master’s degree in nursing. She meets her future husband, Charlie, through a dating service. With him, she finds real love and acceptance of her past, and when she realizes she exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, she begins counseling anew. The therapist suggests she look for her baby, a search that proves long and frustrating. As she moves from the solitude of shame to the loving acceptance of family, Vogeley’s account of the process and her examination of the changing laws on secret adoptions are enlightening.

Throughout I Need to Tell You, questions build: Will she have the baby, will she keep her? Will she look for her daughter, and will she find her? How will she leave the past behind and finally accept herself? While a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, this moving memoir makes all these questions resonate.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023

Tuesdays in Jail

What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates

Tina Welling
New World Library ($17.95)

by George Longenecker                                  

When she volunteered to teach weekly writing workshops at the Teton County Jail in Jackson, Wyoming, Tina Welling had little idea what she was getting into. She had never been in jail or visited anyone in jail.  As metal doors clanked open and shut, guards escorted her to her first class and watched her every move. Yet, before long, she found that a rewarding experience was in store for both her new students and herself.

Welling’s memoir is introspective and practical. A novelist and the author of Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature (New World Library, 2014), Welling brings her writing talent to Tuesdays in Jail, which is beautifully descriptive and fast-paced. She looks at reasons the men there are incarcerated and guides them in self-reflection. She also offers practical advice for others who might want to tutor incarcerated people.

It's not easy for a nature writer to adapt to being inside a bleak prison—the Teton County Jail offers a stark contrast to the natural beauty of Wyoming.  Usually, Welling’s meetings are held in a group circle, overseen by a guard. Occasionally, though, she is locked on one side of a glass partition, with her student confined on the other side:

Each of the five doors needed keys or a code in order to pass through; each was made of thick metal and slammed closed with a deep clang that echoed off the cement block walls.  My stomach tightened with discomfort as each door shut with finality behind me.  I couldn’t find my way out of this place even if I held the ring of keys and the memory of codes.

Though she never feels comfortable in the sterile jail, Welling finds solace in helping her students access hope through writing. She assigns them philosophical and pragmatic prompts: “Choose three . . . characteristics that you’d like to strengthen within yourself, and write them down.”

While Welling knows she can’t fix her students’ pasts, she sees how her classes can affect their wellbeing and mental health—and even their chances of ending up in state prison. She ends up fighting to get the Teton County Sherriff’s Department to make policy changes so that those about to conclude their jail term are not cut off from the communities they’ll soon reenter.

Tuesdays in Jail includes a workbook of fifteen journaling lessons that a prospective volunteer could use for a class with incarcerated people, and throughout the book, Welling reflects on her own life and self-confidence. These reflections, along with non-judgmental sketches of her students, make for a beautifully written memoir that is a must-read for anyone living, working, or thinking of volunteering in prison.    

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023


Attending to Body and Earth in Distress

Ranae Lenor Hanson
University of Minnesota Press ($19.95)

by Elizabeth Bailey

The Danube is no longer blue, I hear as the PBS NewsHour covers the summer 2022 heatwave. Aerial shots pan along wan rivers. The voice-over catalogues the faltering crops, throttled hydroelectric power production, and impassable shipping lanes. The bridges catch my breath, their long spans straining over narrow trickles; lanky support pillars spike from exposed riverbeds dried to a pale suede. Drought makes these feats of engineering look foolishly overbuilt, even obsolete.

From the headwaters of climate change, many crises compound: economic, political, environmental, and social, but also the less newsy crisis of living in the Anthropocene. In Watershed: Attending to Body and Earth in Distress, educator and climate activist Ranae Lenor Hanson explores parallels between the lived experiences of climate change and severe illness. Adult-onset diabetes sent shock waves through Hanson’s life. With her frank account of the illness—its avoidance and disruptive diagnosis, its indignities and halting integration into daily life—she offers a personal map against which readers might chart their own ways through the uneasy waters of the climate crisis.

One parallel between bodily and planetary crises is in Hanson’s response to her escalating illness. At first, her symptoms are vague and ignorable: dizziness, fatigue, growing thirst. She copes by catching hold of a signpost at the bus stop when unsteady or perching “on the edge of a stool” when she can no longer stand up while teaching. This avoidance feels familiar: We all hope that a nagging discomfort will abate unaided, and tend to sidestep reckoning with deeper systemic issues, be they interpersonal, bodily, or environmental.

As Hanson’s symptoms worsen, diabetic ketoacidosis sends her to the hospital where she must finally acknowledge a new reality: without daily, even hourly attention to her health, she risks damaging her body, or shutting it down altogether. Later, she reflects on the difficulty of stopping to address crises; there are “exams to study for, jobs to get (or get to), children to raise,” and other duties and deadlines. After Hanson finally drags herself to an urgent care clinic, she begins to see that “like a diabetic crisis, climate trauma numbs our brains. The threat is too big to conceive, so we relegate it to the background. There it sits, unsettling everything, while most of us focus with increasing intensity on whatever task or diversion is at hand.”

Hanson’s midlife diagnosis upset not only her daily routines, but also her sense of herself as a capable individual treading lightly on the earth. Type 1 diabetes, with its required test strips, glucose monitors, insulin pumps, doctor visits, dietitian sessions, diabetes nurse educators, and medical device hotlines, abruptly ropes Hanson to numerous systems and the “ecological and social and infrastructure stability” needed to maintain health. This new dependency puts Hanson in tension with herself. She anxiously, almost obsessively, counts the “five used and useless strips” wasted while learning to test her blood sugar. Even once she gets the hang of the glucometer, she is pained by how much more trash she generates to stay alive as a diabetic, and bemoans her lost dream “to canoe off into the woods and survive on my own.”

A lifelong Minnesotan, Hanson’s rugged mentality was nurtured by a childhood in the “loosely connected, fiercely independent, unaffiliated Christian network of the north.” Her memories of the Minnesota backwoods have a timeless quality. Seasons roll past, drying peppermint and rosehips on window screens, drilling for fresh spring water, winter camping in trappers’ cabins operated on the honor system, and enduring the casual sexism of a grandfather refusing to teach his granddaughter to drive the tractor. Against this backdrop, certain moments bring the reader swiftly to a particular era. “Though the mosquitoes were thick” when men came to spray the yard with DDT, Hanson’s mother “had read Silent Spring and ran out in protest. . . . Laughing, they sprayed anyway.”

At the hospital, the doctor returns with “good news”: If Hanson “can find a deep, cool lake and a waterproof container,” she’ll be able to store insulin and “live in the woods for up to three months.” Hanson smiles, but then her thoughts turn to climate change. “All I need to do . . . is keep my lake cool.”

As Hanson struggles to navigate the challenges of her new reality, she returns to teaching classes in ethics, global studies, and ecofeminism at a Twin Cities community college. Her students come from many countries, and some “from more than one country by way of relatives and refugee camps.” In one class, students from Africa debate Nile water politics. For them, the implications of a new dam aren’t abstract; all the places the dam will affect—where it is built, where it takes water from, where it floods, where the water is sent, where war will “surely” break out—are personal, filled with “the grandparents of someone” and “the farms of someone else.” Their discussion is not only knowledgeable but undergirded by the firsthand knowledge that “Water is truly life. Or death.”

To some, the climate crisis may feel distant, a problem to be solved for the benefit of future generations. But Hanson’s students are already living amid the concentric crises (drought, famine, fighting) of climate change. For these students, this isn’t a future crisis. Catastrophe is ongoing. Disruption and upheaval have become their own way of life.

Watershed operates on this human scale. By braiding stories of individual struggles with climate-based calamity, Hanson encourages readers to honor and attend to the personal side of a global catastrophe. And what then? Hanson offers some of her suggestions in chapter titles and section breaks: “Pause to Survey,” “Consider the Need to Stop,” “Feel the Grief,” “Bear Witness,” “Practice for Mourning.”

One phrase in particular seems capable of holding the others: “Rely on a Deep, Cool Lake.” Each of us, this phrase suggests, would do well to find a reservoir from which to draw calm and strength. Let it sustain and replenish you, and learn what you can do to replenish and sustain it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023