”I forget sometimes,” my mom told me recently, “that we’ve lived such a great adventure, and then I read the reviews of your book and it all comes over me again and I think: We really did that!”
My dad calls me on the handheld VHF radio in the mornings and asks if there’s been a new review. Since I often can’t access Amazon because of my poor signal, a kind friend emails me whenever new reviews pop up and I pass them on to my parents.
In fact, one of my favorite things since getting my memoir Raised in Ruins published, about growing up in the ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery with only my family, is sharing reviews of the book with my parents. It’s really the only way I have of thanking them for gifting me with the adventure of a lifetime.
The reviews by women often say something like this one by Cynthia Yoder: “Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but by the end of the book, I found myself awed by the author’s mother, who continually worked to protect her children while her husband was away logging.
“Male reviewers identified with my dad, such as Benjamin Scribner: ‘I could relate to her dad, a Vietnam veteran, as I myself am a veteran of the war in the Persian Gulf. I felt I understood him in ways only another veteran could. Overall, I felt this book down to my soul.’
Nancy Guess focused on both of my parents: “Meet the Neilsons: a father who is a Vietnam war vet with PTSD and a real-life MacGyver; a young mom of 5 kids who is tasked with protecting her children from the dangers of the wilderness and both parents ensuring that the children have childhoods.”
One review is now part of family lore, the one by Ann C, who wrote: “The writing is rich with detail and the personalities of family members are vivid, irritating, lovable and more–in a word real.” After I read it I asked my family who they thought was the “irritating” one. Each of us laid claim to it, trying to top each other by pointing out our most irritating traits and actions. I’m sure it will come up in family reunions for years to come.
Like many parents, my parents think their children are the most talented. Many of the reviews didn’t mention how I did with the actual writing, so they were pleased when Terry Levin, an accomplished writer himself, wrote: “It gives a very real sense of what it was like to be a kid growing up in the wilderness and how such a kid could develop a profound love of life that, objectively, was filled with backbreaking labor, few comforts of modern civilization, significant dangers to life and limb and a great deal of isolation. And like the best storytellers, she SHOWS us how this happened, not just telling us that it did. In reading her blog, I sometimes noticed upon finishing an entry that I had become so enthralled that I forgot I was reading: that it seemed I had just soaked up information…. There were portions of this book where she achieved this same effect, especially the lengthy chunk about dealing with an invasion of wolves. Writing that seems effortless is, we all know, often the writing that requires the most effort.”
While I was writing down my childhood memories, I didn’t think that much about how those in my family would react to what I wrote about them. I was told repeatedly by the experts, when I researched writing memoirs, that to write your truth, you needed to shut out the awareness of family and friends reading and judging it later.
After it was published, I did wonder how my family would receive it. I soon found out how at least one of them felt about it as my second youngest brother, Robin, shared with me his reactions in real time as he read Raised in Ruins.
“You would be amazed at the memories my brain is remembering by reading your book!” he texted me as he read. “You have no idea how emotional I am right now! Good though! I feel young! I have energy I haven’t felt in forever.”
Twenty years ago, Robin nearly died in a catastrophic car accident that left him with permanent pain and he was put on highly addictive prescription medication to deal with it. Like many in America, he suffered from addiction. “Living in pain every single day of my life for the past twenty years,” he texted, “and being drug free for over a month and fighting that battle, I don’t feel any pain right now! …I even remember the smell of finger paint…. This is amazing. It’s a roller coaster. Man the ups and downs! I’m crying one minute and laughing hysterically the next. Your writing is awesome! I can’t compare it really to any one writer I have ever read. I have never thought of writers as artists, but you truly are. You paint a picture of our upbringing. At times I forget I’m in it till my name comes up! Fantastic!”
I had never imagined when I was writing the book that it would affect anyone this way and, physically help them, let alone someone I loved. Finally, after he finished the book, he wrote me perhaps the greatest compliment I’ll ever receive that left me–and continues to leave me–in tears.
“Your book has taken me out of deep depression…. Your book is changing my life! What a relief! …It’s amazing how we forget who we were and who we are.”
Robin said that he didn’t have to be depressed because he realized he was essentially a good person, and it was because of how we were raised. I can agree with that. So, thank you, Mom and Dad.
I can’t imagine any review I receive ever topping that one, but if you read Raised in Ruins, please consider leaving a review. I promise to share it with my parents.