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Monday, March 2, 2015

Natalie Kusz

At a glance
Road Song
by Natalie Kusz

Farrar Straus Giroux
268 pages, $21

It's so easy to reduce a person to a notion, a device, a symbol.

Natalie Kusz (pronounced "cush" as in cushion) could be represented by any number of simple words. As her writings so forcefully demonstrate, Kusz is a "survivor," she's "breathtakingly brave," she's a "victor," she's well, you get the idea.

Here's the thing, though: While Kusz is all of that, she's a lot more as well.

For one thing, now at age 41, she's a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Plus she's a regular contributor to magazine such as O, Harper's, McCall's and the New York Times. And when it comes to writing awards, let's just quote her bio as provided by the EWU Press: "Her work has earned a Whiting Writer's Award, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts."

For all this, but mostly because of her ability to put her feelings on paper in prose that is at times poetic, at no time self-indulgent and at all times insightful, she's the April reading selection of The Spokesman-Review's Book Club.

Or, at any rate, her 1990 memoir "Road Song" is.

"Road Song" is a story of struggle and family, not just family struggle. What does that mean? Well, Kusz's Polish-born father managed to survive World War II, and her mother was able to survive being raised by a "bent" woman who was paranoid and quick to judge.

So it's not that hard to see why both would feel the pull to flee civilization and to head for a new life in Alaska. After all, Kusz wrote, "whereas an average and comfortable existence left her and Dad flailing separately toward air, a hard time threw them into each other, backs together, faces toward the fire."

And so in 1969 they left California, a family with four children - Kusz, at age 6, the oldest - to face a life in which they would "abandon certainty." The quest took them all the way to central Alaska, where with the help of an uncle they bought 258 acres of land. They parked their 12-foot travel trailer on a neighbor's property, augmented it with makeshift walls and a two-seat outhouse and prepared to weather the harsh Alaska winters.

It is shortly after their first Christmas - as early as page 47 - when "Road Song" becomes more than an ordinary memoir. That's when it enters "survivor" territory.

Coming home one day, Kusz - now 7 - gets attacked by a sled dog. In the mauling, she loses most of one side of her face, including an eye. Her description of the attack itself reads as if it occurs in a dream:

"A hole was worn into the snow, and I fit into it, arms and legs drawn up in front of me. The dog snatched and pulled at my mouth, eyes, hair; his breath clouded the air around us, but I did not fee its heat, or smell the blood sinking down between hairs of his muzzle. I watched my mitten come off in his teeth and sail upward, and it seemed unfair then and very sad that one hand should freeze all alone; I lifted the second mitten off and threw it away, then turned my face back again, overtaken suddenly by loneliness. A loud river ran in my ears, dragging me under."

Much of "Road Song" concerns Kusz's slow steps toward recovery. But it is always told against the backdrop of her family life, never a television sitcom but an enduring story nonetheless as it chronicles her various operations, flashback of family history, her own teenage stumbles (one of which leaves her pregnant), her mother's death and other stories so natural in their special sense of the ordinary.

Kusz's description of her feelings regarding adolescent romance, for instance, is enough to make anyone understand how such a thing could happen.

"Then, when I was sixteen, I fell in love - a sudden, violent caustic first love, burning through my chest like an acid and consuming me there, shutting my eyes in the pain of it," Kusz wrote. "For a few months I was both very alive and barely living, so aflame in my own joy that, had I stopped to take stock of my condition, I could have mistaken it for suffering. Mine was the terrible, exhilarating angst of a human body lurching forward at light speed, impelled so quickly through all those molecules of air that the skin begins to shed and becomes raw, and the breath cannot exit the lungs."

Even though "Road Song" came out a few years before the personal memoir became such a hot genre, Kusz's book managed to attract glowing reviews.

"Eschewing sentimentality and self-pity," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "Kusz paints a moving portrait of herself and her funny and heroic family in this engrossing, poetically written memoir."

"This beautifully written memoir is a testament to the importance of family, honesty, courage, and hope," wrote Anne Washburn for Library Journal.

And in explaining why she included it in her edition of "500 Great Books by Women," Erica Bauermeister wrote, " 'Road Song' is Natalie Kusz's testament to her family and the traditions and beliefs that held them together, a book of calm, solid wisdom and beauty. Her insights, won at great cost, are presented with a singular grace."

So true. But Kusz may save the biggest sense of grace of all not for herself but for those - such as her mother - who stood by her through it all.

"(T)hose who are truly insightful will know this fact: that the greatest injuries are never those of the body," Kusz wrote. "The people who feel uncomfortable when I mention my mother are the ones interested more in gruesome detail than in stories of heroism or pain. Like children in a schoolyard, they want to know what was my accident, how much did it hurt, and what did I look like afterward. I want to stare squarely at these people, to have them answer for their urge to reduce heartache to a piece of hearsay, examined and set apart from the people who endured it. The truth is, I think, that the casualties among us include not just those who are dying, or bleeding, or recovering from injury, but also the caretakers around the edges whose selves fall sacrificed to their charges."

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster