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book review

Sherman Alexie's You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Between Them: Remembering My Parents

By Richard Ford

Ecco, 192 pages, $27.99

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir

By Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown, 432 pages, $36.50

Two new parent-focused memoirs from major American writers, Richard Ford and Sherman Alexie, confirm what most of us already believe about parental, and especially, maternal affection: It has a hell of an effect on our ease in the world and, relatedly, in our own skin.

That Ford and Alexie's respective upbringings represent antipodes of nurture and neglect is announced by the size of the books themselves: one so slim it barely has a spine to crack, the other a near brick.

Both men's fathers were kind but passive, physically absent figures who died young – Ford's suddenly, in his 50s, of a heart attack days after the author's 16th birthday; Alexie's at 62, in 2003, from chronic alcoholism. Each writer had a longer, more intense relationship with a widowed mother who was, in both cases, the feistier, more sharp-witted parent; the one temperamentally more like himself.

The similarities more or less end there. For Ford, the only child of an older Arkansas couple who'd believed they couldn't conceive, love, even when undeclared, was never in doubt, while for Alexie, raised in poverty on a Spokane Indian reservation by a mother who was both the child of rape and a victim herself, nothing – not love or physical safety – was a given. Both writers were born in the United States, a generation apart, but there's a yawning cultural divide between them.

It's maybe not surprising, then, that their books represent very different approaches to the memoir as genre.

Ford's comprises two essays written 30 years apart, the first focused more on his father, the second on his mother (guessing which came first is a challenge, given the consistency of his style over the decades). Ford calls it "an act of love," but more poignantly perhaps, it's also a simple bearing-witness. At 73, and without children of his own, Ford is aware of being one of the few people alive who still remembers his parents; their memory will die with him. He has made of it a quasi-journalistic exercise, extracting himself from the narrative as much as possible and writing only what he knows is true.

That said, any notion of it as non-literary endeavour is undermined by Ford's characteristically elegant prose, his unassuming but sweetly profound phraseology. A description of his relationship with his mother sounds like a mashup between Anna Karenina and First Corinthians: "I loved my mother the way a happy child does, thoughtlessly and without doubts. And when I became an adult, and we were adults who knew one another, we regarded each other highly. We could always say 'I love you' to clarify our complicated dealings without pausing. That seems perfect to me now and it did then." A committed Ford fan, I found it to be the most moving thing he's written.

Aspects of his family's story are so American as to be borderline cartoonish. Shortly before the Depression, a young Parker Ford left rural Arkansas for the big(ish) city of Little Rock, where he met Ford's mother, Edna, while working at a grocery store. His first and only real job, as a travelling laundry-starch salesman for Faultless Co. of Kansas City, was an ideal match for his personality and skill set, both of which consisted of being amiable. For 15 years, Parker and Edna crisscrossed the South, enjoying a carefree, peripatetic life of motels, dancing and meals out.

It's a portrait of normalcy with a colourful frame. Parker's gullible Arkie honesty contrasts entertainingly with descriptions of Edna's "rattily Ozark" family: her mother, only 14 years her senior, who pretended they were sisters, and stepfather, Bennie, a showboating ex-boxer and gadabout who ran one of Little Rock's largest hotels.

The book's title, Between Them, alludes to Richard Ford's status as the third wheel in an already perfect union ("They wanted me, but did not need me"). It's a role he's content with. His birth, in 1944, also meant an end to his parents' joint nomadism. They took an apartment in Jackson, Miss., while Parker continued to travel, joining his wife and son only on weekends: "He was not a stranger, but he was like a stranger, and while it was foregone that he loved me, it's possible he looked upon me the way I looked upon him."

The image is of three people seamlessly blended into their time and place. By nature uninquiring and accepting of their lot, Edna and Parker weren't challengers, but partakers. "They lived," he writes "simply and only for each other and for the day." Although never rich, the material things they desired – a car, a house in the suburbs – were readily achievable. Take away the disillusionment and bad decisions, and it's easy to see in Parker Ford the template for Frank Bascombe, the indelible, minor-key hero of the quartet of novels that includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day.

There are dark spots. Richard Ford's grandfather took his life after losing the family farm to bad investments. His parents could be "combustible" – he twice recounts his father pushing his mother against a brick wall following a drunken argument. But the darkest was Parker's 1960 death, which brought an abrupt end to the family's effortless idyll. In the 20 years she would go on living, Ford's mother gave up, he says, "on the part of herself that loved him."

Ford, though, is phlegmatic about his life's central tragedy. He believes his father's death enabled his writing career – not, as with Sherman Alexie, because grief compelled it – but because he feels he would have yielded to the different path his father would surely have pressed for. Either outcome would have been acceptable, he says, but he's clearly grateful for the one that transpired: "His sudden departure, the great, unjust loss of his life, handed me a life to live by my own designs, freed me to my own decisions."

Reverse the ratio of dark to light in Ford's memoir and you get something close to Alexie's. Thank god the man is funny. The epitome of writing as therapy, as self-reckoning, it is gloriously uneven, repetitive, circular, unfiltered; a word torrent split between prose and poetry, joke-telling and other form-bending rantings reflective of the author's near-existential anxiety.

It opens with a description of the "dangerous" New Year's Eve party Alexie's parents threw in their ramshackle, government-built home on the Spokane Indian Reservation in early 1970s Wellpinit, Wash. To deter the various murderers and molesters he knew would be in attendance, Alexie stuck 40 butter knives in his doorjamb. He lived through the night as through a hurricane, but credits his survival to his mother going sober the next day.

Alexie's fiction (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, War Dances) has always been separated from his life with the thinnest of veneers. Born hydrocephalic, he underwent brain surgery as an infant, and suffered seizures and the symptoms of what would later be revealed as bipolar disorder in his early years. He left the reservation for good in 1979, at the age of 19, to attend a school where he jokes he was the only Indian other than the school mascot. Although familiar, these stories are cast here in a different, more searing light – the combined result of his mother's 2015 death and surgery he had to remove a benign brain tumour the same year.

Although he's spent much of his life writing what he calls "loving codes to my drunken and unreliable father" – Sherman Alexie Sr., a Coeur d'Alene Indian who squandered parenthood and a working life for a career of television and alcohol – Alexie's real-life psyche is ruled by his contradictory, opinionated and often terrifying mother, whom he calls a "bipolar dust devil," a "cruel, pathological liar" and "the reservation Medea." When he woke up crying in the middle of the night for his absent father at age 4, she locked him outside to sleep with the dogs. When he was 10, she hurled a can of Pepsi at his head during an argument and knocked him out cold.

Lillian Alexie was herself a survivor, a Christian who sang "hymns and Spokane Indian songs that sounded like each note was filled with 10,000 years of grief," a woman whose life was peppered with near-constant loss. After single-handedly raising five children through quilt-making, she would later become an addictions counsellor. "She was angry, yes, but she angrily provided for her children. She kept us mostly warm and mostly safe and mostly fed. And that was no small accomplishment for a woman who'd been hurt so much – who was the child of the greatest hurt."

Knowing the causes for his mother's behaviour doesn't make loving her any easier, however. For a three-year stretch, she and Alexie didn't speak, even after he tried to make amends. The book's title, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (spoiler alert: she doesn't) is falsely cavalier – one gets the sense that saying so might have shaved a few chapters off this book.

Few could claim as much ownership to Philip Larkin's famous lines "They fuck you up/your mum and dad" as Alexie. Yet, the most relevant part of that poem to his story comes in the second stanza: "But they were fucked up in their turn/By fools in old-style hats and coats." Those fools include the men who raped Lillian Alexie and her mother before her, as well as the creators of the reservation system, whose living conditions Alexie describes as near-laboratory-like for the flourishing of rape culture and abuse.

Alexie realized his powerful mother's kryptonite when she was called in to speak to one of his grade-school teachers. She was, he says, "powerless against white teachers. She was powerless against white schools. She was powerless against white government. She was powerless against whiteness in all its forms." The reservation wasn't a happy place but it was the only place she had power, so she stayed.

The memoir's unofficial theme is guilt. Alexie feels guilty for being a bad Indian, for leaving his siblings to deal with his ailing parents, for his Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with the culture that caused his own so much pain. He talks of being "addicted to those white folks who will reward me for being Indian. I am addicted to those white folks who will not torture me." He loops back, again and again, to Lillian's death. At the funeral, mourners weepily extol her generosity; describe how she helped them overcome their addictions. For Alexie, it's cold comfort. Three of Lillian's children were alcoholics; one died horribly in a drunken trailer fire. She was incapable of doing for Alexie and his siblings – the cobbler's children – what she so readily did for others.

Richard Ford wrote a memoir to ensure his parents wouldn't leave the world unnoticed. Even had her son never put pen to paper, that wouldn't have been the case with Lillian Alexie, who was one of four remaining speakers of her tribal language. His ignorance of the latter being another source of guilt for Alexie, it might seem paradoxical that he praises her for never having taught that language to him, but that's because he's sure it was one of a few acts of love: "She protected us from that spiritual burden. She protected us from our loneliness."

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.