Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Wishing for Snow: A Memoir by Minrose Gwin

Opening lines of the book:

“I am the daughter of the woman who wrote this poem. My mother was born in the July heat of a Mississippi summer in 1921.”

Why I read it:

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and I was curious to see how the author’s mother went from being a “cheerful, perceptive young girl” to a mother with a serious mental illness.

What it’s about:

In Wishing for Snow: A Memoir, Minrose Gwin becomes the archivist of her mother’s life, sifting through old papers, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, clippings, cards, pictures and poems to find the woman she never knew. Erin Taylor Clayton Pitner, was, as Gwin puts it, a “crazy mother”: erratic, violent and unable to nurture her children. But she was also a poet, and, as Gwin discovered when reading her mother’s childhood diary, she had once been a perceptive child with a bright future. Wishing for Snow is Gwin’s attempt to come to terms with her mother’s downward spiral into darkness.

What worked:

Wishing for Snow has an unconventional structure: Gwin doesn’t tell her story chronologically or with flashbacks, but instead circles around and around, approaching her mother’s life from multiple angles and interspersing her narrative with Erin Taylor’s poems and diary entries as well as lists, letters, recipes and song lyrics. Although this circling structure might sound repetitive, it never felt that way: instead, it gave the memoir a sense of immediacy and poignancy. Memory, after all, is not linear. Gwin writes with a poet’s sensibility, weaving together the disparate pieces of her mother’s life while reflecting on her own childhood and the impact her mother’s mental illness had on her. I especially appreciated that she included so many of her mother’s poems in this memoir: at times, they made me wonder if, had she been born under a luckier star, Erin Clayton Pitner might have become a household name.

What didn’t work:

At the beginning of the book, Gwin goes through her mother’s family history, which I found quite confusing, in part because many of the relatives are described but not named. Because I’m interested in such things, I sketched out Erin Taylor’s family tree going back two generations on her mother’s side and even then I couldn’t make sense of it. Gwin clearly tells us that her mother’s maternal grandmother had seven children, but her mother seems to have five aunts and two uncles on that side of the family (which adds up to eight children, if you include Erin Taylor’s mother!).

Favourite quote:

“After a few nights, I begin to dream that [the pillows from Mama’s sofa, which have been discarded in the storage shed,] are unhappy. They want to be dry-cleaned. They want to come inside and lie on my couch. They are thinking they can toast themselves in front of the fire and look out the window. They are wanting us to rest our heads on them and take dreamy naps on hot summer afternoons, or throw them at each other in fun.

“One night I dream that they are climbing over the lawn mower and working the lock to the shed. The next day I gather them up fast and throw them in the garbage can. For days I picture them there, wounded by this unseemly treatment, like cousins who knock at the door and are turned away for no good reason.

“At 8:17 on Tuesday morning I am watching from behind my curtain for the garbage truck to round the bend in my street. I fully expect that there will be some accident, a spillage, and the pillows will make their getaway. Then, the clank of the truck making the bend and, before I can take a deep breath, the garbage men have picked them up and thrown them into the back of the truck. This, I feel, is a miracle of vast proportion.” (p. 6)

Final thoughts:

Wishing for Snow is not always an easy read, nor does it offer easy answers, but it is a moving and unforgettable tribute to a talented poet and difficult mother.

Thank you to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.

Wishing for Snow is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in July and August. Visit these other blogs for reviews:

Cozy Little HouseReviews by LolaKnowing the DifferenceLisa’s YarnsNatty MichelleGood Girl Gone RedneckTed Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms

Recommended review: Lit Endeavors (also part of the TLC Book Tour)


  1. I loved her first novel and was excited when I first saw this book the other day (thinking it was also a novel) and disappointed that it was a memoir. Memoirs are tough to pull off. Did you read her novel?

  2. I'd probably like this one even with the confusing family tree. You know me and memoirs.

  3. Ti, no, I haven't read her novel, but I really want to now! I'd read mixed reviews of it before that made me think I wouldn't like it, but this memoir is beautifully written, so I'm going to give her novel a try. (By the way, I'm sorry you've been having trouble commenting on my blog!)

    Kathy, the family tree mix-up is a pretty minor issue: you must read this book!

  4. Confusing family trees will loose me. I don't read many many memoirs, it really has to interest me. I'm not sure if this one is for me.

  5. Wow! I got chills reading this review! Anytime you read a book and want to seek out other works by that author (as you mentioned in your comment to Ti), then that's a sure sign of a great book, IMO. Glad you liked it! I think it's really cool that you sketched out her family tree. :)

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  6. I am a big fan of memoirs and this book jumped out at me last week, although I resisted. I met Minrose at an author event last year (although I haven't read her novel either). I'm still not sold becuase you talk about the poetry, which to me often means that an author is very self-satisfied with the sound of her own voice instead of pacing and clarity, and that is one of my red flags. However, that's a red flag for me for novels - I've never really had that problem with a memoir. So maybe I'll look at it again next week...

  7. I'm not sure if this book is for you either, Jennifer (Mrs. Q.). It's certainly an unconventional memoir, but it's beautifully written, in my opinion.

    Thanks, Trish! I also find it's interesting to read a novel by an author who's memoir you've read, as it can sometimes give you insight into where their stories are coming from.

    Carin, hmm, gotta say I'm not sure I understand how including poetry means the author is self-satisfied. In this case, it's not the author's poetry, but her mother's, which I think adds a dimension to the story (as it's no longer just about her mother -- we actually get to hear her mother's take on things).

  8. I'm new to your blog and enjoyed the visit. Very interesting and informative review. I, too, love memoirs, especially those that deal with "crazy" moms! LOL
    I'm one of your new followers...Come visit me, too!

  9. I will add this one to my list. It sounds like the way this one is structured is perfect for the subject matter. Memory is not linear and there are no easy answers with mental illness.

  10. memoirs really need to speak to me before I'll read them. Not sure about this one but your review was great and let me know whether or not I would pick this one up in the future.

  11. I think it would be hard to see our mother in a new light... we tend to forget that they too had lives before the title of MOTHER came. This memoir sounds quite intense but I have to admit you have a way with words - making me want to tackle this one too.

    Impressive review and bravo Avis girl :)