annotation by Wendy Fontaine
The Boys of My Youth is an elegant collection of twelve narrative essays that focus on the author’s Midwestern childhood and the relationships that carried into her adulthood. To show readers how she came to be the person she is, Jo Ann Beard uses a combination of present tense narration, simple yet meaningful motifs, and a layering of scenes from childhood and adulthood to create a collage of pieces that evoke emotion without being overly sentimental.
One essay in particular illustrates this narrative structure. In the title essay, which comes last in the collection, Beard writes about the pursuit of childhood crushes. Throughout the piece, Beard shifts from her childhood neighborhood, where she prank-called boys with her best friend, Elizabeth, into her adulthood, where she is an editor in Iowa and Elizabeth is an editor in Chicago. Throughout the essay, the two share a telephone conversation discussing past relationships and they way they met.
In one paragraph they are in junior high school French class, horrified when the teacher tells a classmate she enunciates like Porky the Pig. Immediately, the narrative shifts to present time, as they are reminiscing over the phone and Elizabeth is correcting the author’s memory about the first time they met:
“That was ninth grade, not seventh,” Elizabeth says. “We were already friends when that happened.” She is at her office in downtown Chicago, talking to me on the WATS line. “You wouldn’t’ believe what my desk looks like right now.” I would because I’ve witnessed it. She’s an editor, and there are manuscripts stacked everywhere and yellow notes with Urgent scrawled across them stuck to the carpet. (156)
One of Beard’s many talents is melding the funny with the sad, and creating beautiful sentences that evoke certain feelings within the reader. Her subject matter is not particularly sentimental, since many of her essays are about the smaller moments in life, but her prose is so sparse and well crafted that it resonates with emotion.
“Cousins” is an example of this. A collage-like essay that begins with two pregnant sisters fishing from a boat, it moves into the lives of sisters’ boy-crazy, free-spirited daughters: Beard and her cousin, Wendell. The essay is comprised of nonlinear snapshots – Beard and Wendell as girls playing Dirty Barbies in the backyard or getting stoned at an Eric Clapton concert, juxtaposed with scenes of Beard’s mother lying in a hospital bed, coming in and out of consciousness because of morphine and illness.
“They [Beard's mother and aunt] swim through her lake, gray-eyed sisters, thin-legged and mouthy. They fight and hold hands, trade shoes and dresses, marry beautiful tall men, and have daughters together, two dark-eyed cousins, thin-legged and mouthy.” (44)
Beard’s essays work together as a collection because they address similar themes and include similar descriptions or motifs. “Cousins,” which is my favorite piece in the collection, includes a motif of a silver baton in a way that is hauntingly beautiful. A few of the author’s pieces feature the same phrases and similes, such as swimming or rowing a boat as metaphor for dreaming. Several essays begin with and include short, matter-of-fact sentences that immediately place the reader into the story, such as “Here is a scene” or “This is daytime.”
Beard’s twelve essays also vary in certain ways. Some are very short. “In The Current,” which is about three teenagers who get caught in a river current, is barely two pages. Others, like “The Boys of My Youth,” are much longer. A few are written in past tense, but most are in present tense (which Beard said in an interview with The Fiddleback, an online magazine, is something she does unintentionally).
Writing in present tense closes the narrative distance between reader and writer and lends immediacy to the story. What the writer surrenders with present tense, though, is a measure of reflection, which is a key element of memoir. If the narrator is speaking in the moment, hindsight is not an option. Beard’s essays tend to run short on reflection, perhaps because of her use of present tense.
Another interesting element of this book is how Beard writes about her childhood. She seems to inhabit the space between remembering and imagining. Readers see this best in the essay, “Bulldozing the Baby,” in which Beard is a three-year-old separated for the first time from her favorite doll, Hal. The essay conveys her toddler thoughts in a humorous, adult-like manner. Since it is unlikely anyone would remember events from when they were three years old, the piece reads as though it was meant more for entertainment than for recollecting the past. If readers accept that the author has taken creative license, the effect is a funny take on what happens when Beard’s aunt decides to take away her beloved Hal.
I most admire Beard’s use of motif, particularly in her essay “Cousins.” The repeating images of fish, silver flashes, swimming and rowing a boat add a beautiful depth and connectivity to the work, which is something I would like to add to my own personal essays.