October 9, 2007

Book review: "Growing Up Moffett," by Sarah Moffett

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Growing Up Moffett: The Rise and Fall of Innocence In a Pathos-Plagued Year
By Sarah Moffett
FaithWalk / ISBN: 978-1-932902-65-5

As anyone who has tried it before can attest, the writing of a creative personal memoir can be a much trickier thing than it might seem at first; that even though it's true that most of us have at least one fascinating story from our real pasts, there's a wide gulf between that and a finished book the general public will find entertaining. There is the uniqueness of the story to consider; there is what the person learned about life from the experience, and what insights they have to share with others. There is the issue of real people turned into literary characters, a process that does not necessarily produce great results every time; and then there's the writing skills of the memoirist themselves, and of whether they understand the proper points of their life story in which to start and finish their manuscript. As thousands have remarked on separate occasions now over the centuries, there's a difference between a captivating real story and a captivating book, with one of these not necessarily equalling the other.

Growing Up Moffett, by Sarah Moffett

And thus do we arrive at the awkwardly titled but still compelling Growing Up Moffett: The Rise and Fall of Innocence In a Pathos-Plagued Year, by an attorney in the Washington DC area named Sarah Moffett; it is basically a look at a particularly craptastic year from Moffett's childhood, where in a single twelve-month period she lost three close family members (grandmother, grandfather and uncle) to cancer, which she then uses in the book as a springboard into more general thoughts concerning childhood, loss, family, and her strict Christian faith. (In fact, this is an important thing to understand before picking the book up in the first place -- that it is published by a Christian-based small press, and that the book has a specific pro-Christian message.) And indeed, faith-based philosophical opinions about life aside, the heart of the book is a sincerely page-flipping tale of grief, the coping process, and the power of family to get past it all; but unfortunately, like many other such memoirs from beginning writers, Moffett has difficulty determining where to begin and end her story, subjecting us instead to a bevy of unilluminating and superfluous thoughts concerning EveryFamily USA, thoughts that will be of little interest to anyone outside of Moffett's own family and friends. It's an intriguing book, a read I'm glad I made, solidly written if nothing outstanding; unfortunately, though, it's about twice as long as it should be, with a first half that could literally be lopped off without missing a single story element of note.

As with many memoirs, the best place to start when discussing Growing Up Moffett is with Moffett herself; because the author is pretty much as close as one gets to Average Non-Descript White Christian Suburban Nice Person, a fact she abundantly establishes in the first half in order to contrast against the events of the second. And in my opinion, this is not necessarily a bad way to start a memoir -- that sometimes, such stories are remarkable precisely because of the extraordinary things happening to an ordinary person. "Sarah As Literary Character" is someone I think many CCLaP readers will be able to identify with, especially women; the product of a happy family, set from an early age on a course that will lead them to a life of quiet middle-class consumerism, with nonetheless a desire to have at least a certain amount of Art and Beauty and Truth in their lives as well. It is precisely because so many people will relate to her situation, in fact, that the weight of the events at the heart of the story is so heavy; because the fact is that it's unusual to lose three family members in a single year, much less all of them coincidentally from the same illness. Many of us can picture such a situation in our own lives, and sincerely wonder how we would deal with it; Moffett actually has dealt with it, which of course is why she's justified in writing this memoir in the first place.

But of all the differences between an intriguing personal story and one that makes for a good general-interest book, I think the most important is this -- of how many observations that author has to make about a situation that come as brand-new insights to us, observations that we would've never come up with ourselves. And in this unfortunately Moffett strays far from the mark; that literally the first half of Growing Up Moffett takes place before this fateful year of multiple deaths, and that nothing particularly original happens to this family before that point that doesn't happen to a million other families every year. And this of course is why memoirs are such infamously tricky things to get right, because it's difficult to understand where this line lays; of when it's appropriate to get into the background of the memoir's characters, and the everyday lives they led before The Catalyst, in order to make people understand why The Catalyst was so important to begin with, versus when it's appropriate to skip over a certain detail because of it holding no intrinsic interest on its own. To cite one case, for example, Moffett devotes pages upon pages to the championship season her high school women's basketball team had the same year all these family deaths were occurring, detailing specifics of games that few outside the team members themselves cared about even 20 years ago when they were originally happening. As with many other examples, this is clearly a case where Moffett could've used the help of a more critical outside eye before publication, someone outside her family and friends who could've helped her determine just what is of general interest in this story and what isn't.

And then of course there's the overtly Christian nature of this manuscript, one that goes beyond a simple discussion of faith-based grieving and coping; as mentioned, for example, the book itself was published by a Christian-based company, and the manuscript even opens with a Christian Bible verse. And again, this is not necessarily inappropriate for a fascinating general-interest personal memoir -- think of all the amazing tomes over the years, for example, from celebrated religious leaders, specifically dealing with the religion they've devoted their lives to. A little of this, though, goes a long way, and memoirists need to be especially careful when presenting stories like this to the general public*; publish a story that preaches a sermon even just a tiny bit too much, and the general population will reject it in droves, relegating that book to the "Christian publishing ghetto" (you know, next-door to the "Christian music ghetto") and essentially guaranteeing its mainstream failure. Not to mention, even when a memoir is about a person's faith and spirituality, where it becomes of most interest to others is in where that author's faith is tested -- where circumstances drive that person to question their spirituality, or at least when earthly temptations lead to a greater understanding of their faith. Moffett, for example, happens to deal with these deaths at the beginning of her teens, not only at the onset of puberty but also at a time when she was attending religious summer camps, overnight church "lock-ins" and the like; and I don't know about her in particular, of course, but with just about every other person I've ever known who was heavily involved with their church in their early teens, it was at these precise events where they also first explored their sexuality, as well as seriously questioned their faith for the first time. (Ah, bible camps and Boy Scout jamborees -- where would budding teenage sexuality be without them?)

Moffett is surprisingly self-assured about her young spirituality in Growing Up Moffett, one suspects even to a revisionist degree, considering not only the usual teenage temptations but also the debilitating and painful deaths of three cherished family members in such a short period; most thirteen-year-olds in the same position I think would at least be highly tempted to question their god's existence under such circumstances, no matter what the particular religion or where the events are taking place. I suspect that Moffett actually did go through such a questioning of her faith, as well as a little partaking of sinful temptations, but then for some reason decided not to share this part of the story; and that's a real shame, because this is ultimately what differentiates an intriguing true story from a compelling general-interest commercial book, is that author's willingness to open up and really expose a raw and vulnerable side of themselves, to show both the small and large ways they failed as humans under such a crisis, and how they managed to get through it anyway with the help of their family and/or their god(s). When a person is unwilling to share such details when recounting a personal story, they might want to give some thought about whether they should be publishing a commercial book in the first place, or whether the retelling of that story might be more appropriate (and comfortable) when said out loud in a less intimate form over dinner tables to friends and family only.

Like I mentioned, though, I did up enjoying this book -- although bibliophiles should be aware that Moffett's technical skills as a creative writer fall somewhere between beginning and intermediate, as is the case with many lawyers who attempt creative projects. (And by the way -- please, all you Grisham-dreamers, please, no more explaining your characters' backgrounds as if you were writing a Wikipedia entry. I thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.) Ultimately Growing Up Moffett is a heartfelt book, a sincere and enthusiastic one, that tells a story in plain language worth listening to, from someone who felt legitimately compelled by a higher power to sit and tell it; and truthfully, sometimes that's all a book needs to be an entertaining one, and one worth your time. As with most books reviewed here, it is not for everyone; if inspirational stories are your bag, though, with a bit more sugary sweetness than normal and with a little of that old-time religion for good measure, this is a book you'll want to check out for sure.

Out of 10: 7.0

*For what it's worth, I myself have been an atheist for almost 25 years now, although am also a political supporter of the pacifistic interfaith movement; I tried not to let my own beliefs influence my review of this book, although they undoubtedly did at least a little.

Read even more about Growing Up Moffett: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:23 AM, October 9, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |