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A review of The Solace of Stones

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The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way Through the Wilderness
by Julie Riddle
Bison Books, 2016; 300pp; $19.95

The title (and greenery-soaked cover) of Julie Riddle's new memoir, The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness, suggest a New Age, contemporary take on Henry David Thoreau's Walden; and because Americans tend to romanticize the natural world's power to heal, one might approach the book with hopes of having this idea confirmed.

But The Solace of Stones almost immediately punctures that expectation by revealing that Riddle, despite spending her childhood days playing in the unpopulated woods of Montana, spent two decades unable to name, understand, or escape the emotional fallout from a sexual trauma she experienced at age five. Her family, meanwhile, unaware of the incident, jumped feet-first into her parents' dream of building a log house in the untamed wilderness of northwestern Montana.

Readers journey with Riddle's family to realize this way-tougher-than-it-sounds fantasy, inspired by a book titled How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day. We learn about the intensive labor and time that goes into building a log house, including the first step: constructing a basement that will be the family’s underground home for three years while the rest of the house gradually takes shape.

But the parents' dogged pursuit of this "life in nature" goal is not Riddle's point of entry. Instead, The Solace of Stones opens with a scene in which 11-year-old Julie, her thumb throbbing after having a window slammed on it, sought help from her stoic policeman father.

He shifted my wrist, appraising my thumb as though it were a bent framing nail that he was deciding whether to hammer true. (This was the extent of my father's touch; while he was affectionate with my mother and engaged with my brother in roughhouse play, he reserved contact with me for practical purposes.)

Her father led Julie to his gun shop in the basement, where he "fixed our broken belongings and other men's guns," and he drilled a quick, small hole into her thumbnail, releasing the pressure. She flinched not at all, confidently telling the reader, "My father could fix anything."

This prologue, while vivid and beautifully rendered, inevitably feels a bit misleading. It appears to set the stage for a book about a troubled young girl's complicated relationship with her father. And while tells the broader story of Riddle's family (including Riddle's mother and older brother) and her place within it, the beating heart of the book lies in Riddle's growing realization that something in her past went terribly, terribly wrong. Even though she can't immediately identify what's happened, it shapes her life nonetheless.

For many years, Riddle found a companion in her brother Joel as the two grew up; and Riddle's gorgeous prose palpably conveys the unfettered joys of a nature-centric life, particularly in the earliest days of the family's adventure.

That summer Joel and I frolicked and prowled; we played while our parents worked, turned-loose children transformed into creatures. Here, in this place absent walls and fences, the domestic definitions of home and family, of parents, even pet, dissolved. Home was a tiny camper, a brief shelter used for meals and sleep. My father now a construction foreman who worked from dawn to dusk, my mother his attentive assistant; the pair driving hard to build a covered basement before the first frost, their single-minded focus releasing Joel and me and our bear-wolf-dog to run unleashed and free. The rules of our roles as son, daughter, brother, sister fell away, and as we explored woods without borders our understanding of self was mirrored back to us now, not by directing, demanding adults but by stalwart trees and constant, carving water.

But while Joel veered into mildly destructive behaviors (stomping on anthills, sending boulders rolling down banks), Riddle, at age seven, sought connection. Only a few pages after this idyllic description of their home base, Riddle explains, in matter-of-fact tone, that "Two years before, when I was five and my family lived in Butte, I had fallen prey to a man who used little girls to indulge in his sick delights. The man’s wife ran a day care, and it was there, in the bathroom, where my emotional self separated from my body like a hot-air balloon untethered from ax-chopped ropes." The sentences explode like a literary bomb, shocking readers into focus, but then the abuse drifts into the book's backdrop for many chapters, since Riddle, as a child, had to detach herself from it in order to cope.

Therein lies a memoir-writing paradox. The author must mention the abuse fairly early because Riddle's struggle to recover, and her warped development in its wake, comprises the core of the book. Because Riddle, as a child, couldn’t recognize the source of the shadow that always hung over her head, The Solace of Stones's heart-stopping revelation of abuse quickly gives way to a long, step-by-step description of how her parents worked to erect a log house. Inevitably, this brakes the book's momentum.

Yet in The Solace of Stones's "How to Build a Log House" chapter, Riddle creatively applies, and draws from, a few different narrative techniques, presenting the material in short bursts. She excerpts the Johnson family's 1977 Christmas letter; she provides straight facts about the necessary sequence of the build, and the complexities involved in the process itself; and, most revealingly, she offers tongue-in-cheek warnings and tips, which are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

WARNING TO THE WIFE: after you are drained from a day of laboring on the house, your daughter will ask, "Mom, why are you doing all this?" and you will tell her, "Why, we're doing this for you, honey." But this is a lie. The truth is, you and your husband are in too deep to quit. But you can't admit that now, to your daughter or to yourself. And you don't realize the burden you've just shifted to her small shoulders: she is the reason her parents are overworked, underfunded, harried, bruised, and exhausted.

The reader comes away from the chapter with a deep understanding of the hardships and sacrifices involved in constructing the family home by hand, and Riddle goes to great lengths to make this bit of familial exposition both readable and human. But even so, it's hard to stay engaged when our attention remains laser-focused on the awful secret Riddle has just revealed.

It’s no coincidence that the strongest section of the book by far is its middle, which masterfully traces the way Riddle's trauma begins to push up against her awareness. The reader feels a palpable sense of dread as the narrative, now more tightly focused, whisks through Riddle’s unhealthy (but sadly typical) first brush with romance in high school, her striving college years, and her experience teaching English in Japan—which ended prematurely when her past caught up with her, and she suffered a complete breakdown.

Riddle’s father had to travel to Japan and help her pack her belongings. He escorted her back to her childhood home, where she suffered from paralyzing depression for months and tried to figure out the root of her pain through therapy. At one point during this time, her mother, trying to ride the line between giving her daughter space and nudging her forward, encouraged Julie to sign up for a thirty-five-dollar pottery class at a local community college:

I had graduated summa cum laude from a four-year, private college. I had won awards and scholarships out the wazoo and had traveled all over the world. I interned at the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Office in Washington, DC. Important people—Speaker of the House Tom Foley!—had told me I was going places and offered to help get me there. Enrolling in an adult-ed pottery class at the community college in Dinksville, Montana, was not what I, or Tom Foley, had had in mind. Yet, my grand plan had dwindled to this: sitting among strangers and trying to press clay into a respectable shape. An unnerving and monumental prospect.

Though Riddle had realized, in Japan, that she'd suffered sexual trauma, she couldn't name its source. Through many therapy sessions, she finally arrived at the answer, and began the hard work of processing this hideous truth while also building a life for herself.

Riddle married, opting to not have children (as some victims of sexual trauma do, Riddle notes), and she now works as a senior development writer at Whitworth University. The final chapters of her memoir focus on Riddle's intense gluten allergy (which, interestingly, may have ties to her trauma), and the steep decline of the place where she grew up. The family house, which her parents eventually sold to someone who wished to own it as a "Montana getaway," slipped into ruin. The 2008 economic downturn hit mining areas like Riddle's hometown particularly hard. And Riddle reports on the environmental fallout from years of toxic construction materials used in the area. (A high number of residents, including her parents, have been diagnosed with various types of cancer.)

Near its end, The Solace of Stones feels like it may have cast too broad a net, and thus strayed from its thematic destination: trauma and its long, complicated recovery. Yet because the reader is rooting for, and intimately connected to, Riddle by this time, her sure-handed prose carries us through these less urgent, more epilogue-like final chapters. The reader's critical faculties grow quiet, simply absorbing the perspectives that Riddle offers from her journey.

Jenn McKee is the staff arts/entertainment reporter for Ann Arbor News. She earned an MA in English from the University of Georgia, and an MFA in creative writing from Penn State University. Her story, “Under the Influence,” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the anthology, “Best New American Voices 2003.” She lives in Farmington, Michigan with her lovely husband and two daughters.

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