According to the CIA, the United States is among the bottom third of countries with the worst wealth inequality in the world, between Uruguay and Cameroon. I mention this at the beginning of a book review only because, especially in this election year, we continue to hear a great deal about America’s mythical middle class, on which, we are told, the fate of our nation depends. Seldom, though, do we hear about the increasing ranks of the country’s poor.
All the more welcome, then, is Mark Anthony Rolo’s memoir, My Mother Is Now Earth.
It is early 1971 in northwestern Minnesota, and the Rolo family is on the move from Milwaukee to, Big Falls, seventy-five miles northeast of Bemidji, where the father, Don, hopes to make a living as a farmer (15). Their new house is “a falling-down building with a crushed-in cement porch,” where, “Snow mounds cover the hardwood floors” (17). They live for the first few months in the garage. They spend whatever money remains after Don’s bouts of drinking on the most basic groceries.
The story is
told through the eyes of Mark,
who is in second-grade when the family arrives Big Falls.
Marks' mother Corrine is a private woman who finds reprieve in the act of writing letters to her relatives in Wisconsin. She finds herself freed to document an inner life that her children rarely see. Mark reacts, at the end of 1971, by throwing the five-page draft of one of her letters that he has discovered into the fiery furnace, without reading it. Such are the quiet battles of their world.
The children struggle to understand their multiracial identities. Don is white, Corrine Indian, an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Mark’s brother Dennis faces racism from his teachers, one of whom “calls him Chief and another . . . says he should just drop out and move back to the reservation and live off the government” (40). On the other hand, Mark’s fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mattson, asks him to write a report on the American Indian Movement and its standoff at Wounded Knee.
One of the book’s pleasures is watching Rolo reflect major historical events of the early seventies – including Vietnam, Watergate, and hippie counterculture – in the modest life of northwestern Minnesota.
At crucial moments, Rolo ruptures what we normally consider the boundaries of reality. The line between waking and dreaming, between life and death, becomes unreadable. Or as Mark puts it, “I can’t see where the tops of pines disappear into the rising sky. I can’t see where the fields end and the forests begin” (209). These limits of vision, it turns out, are also the beginning of grace.