Observant readers of this blog may have noticed the name of A. Manette Ansay on my sidebar, on my list of authors I love. I own two of her novels. River Angel was purchased during a down period in my life, when a melange of work and love-related issues had me wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble in search of something to cling to. The book had a lovely phrase on the cover, something about souls rising like dandelion seeds, so I bought it and took it home in the hopes that it'd make me feel better for a couple of days. It did. I also bought Vinegar Hill, which was her first novel, and read Sister once. All three books were very sad, although River Angel does end on a positive note, at least. They were moving and well-written, though. I was surprised when I saw her name in the non-fiction section, so I took that book, Limbo, home with me.
When I took my creative writing classes in college, the professors would always encourage us to write about what we know. It's amazing how well many novelists do that, once you learn a little bit about their lives. Barbara Kingsolver, for example, grew up in rural Kentucky, moved to the Southwest as an adult, and was pursuing a career in biology before she became a successful novelist. A. Manette Ansay's family briefly lived with her father's parents who loathed each other the same way the grandparents in Vinegar Hill did, and the grandfather was always threatening to tell everyone about the grandmother (he never did, and apparently took whatever her secret was to the grave with him.)
But that's not all I learned about Ansay in her memoir. I was surprised to learn that she has lived with a mysterious disability for over 15 years. She had been a promising pianist, but one day her muscles just refused to work. She had trouble performing even simple tasks, let alone playing the piano. She had to drop out and move back home. She went everywhere, tried everything. She saw every sort of medical professional known to man. They all had theories, but nothing helped. To this day, she doesn't have a definitive diagnosis, and she needs a wheelchair to get around.
Now, a book like this could've gone in a couple of different directions. It could've been a poor-me tale, or it could've been a heroic tale about how Mansay triumphed over adversity to become a successful writer. She doesn't tell it like that. She talks about it simply as part of her life story, a simple "this is what life is like for me". She talks about the crap she had to endure from complete strangers and the bizarre comments they'd make. Some make inane jokes ("Hey, don't go too fast in that thing or I'll have to give you a ticket!!!"), some make cruel jokes (she also said that guys loved to yell improper suggestions out of car windows, then laugh and drive away). Some ask her personal questions, as if she has a duty to explain to anyone who sees her why she's in a chair. Some express something akin to jealousy, implying how nice it must be to just ride everywhere. Some try to convert her. Some who had been her friends cut her off, blaming her affliction on herself. Others get all sanctimonious and tell her how she must've learned a great deal from her experience (she snapped at one such individual that maybe something terrible would happen to her one day, and she'd get to learn from it too).
But she's just trying to live her life, and it had been and continued to be a good one. Take away the parts with the illness and it'd be a quintessential American childhood: she grew up in the Midwest, with one brother, and was raised by loving parents. She went to church, got good grades, excelled at the piano, and as she got older, found out how far these qualities could take her. There's a lot of sweet, funny stuff in the book, as well as some of the darker fears and misunderstandings of childhood. You see her going from being a daughter to getting to understand her parents as human beings. You see her fall in love and get married, journey away from the rigid, judgemental faith of her childhood to a different understanding of spirituality, pursue one path and then change it. Without the illness, it's really like anyone's life. Which, I think, is part of the point she was trying to make. Her mystery illness was a terrible thing, and it was a thing that's shaped her life, but it doesn't define her.