About a month ago, I finished my second Annie Dillard book, An American Childhood. Dillard has had a special place in my heart ever since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in high school. Tinker Creek is a Thoreau-like book of insanely detailed observation so powerful I find myself rereading every two or three years. The language in Tinker Creek is so beautifully crafted that it reads, at times, like a prose poem, the art of which can, if care is not taken, distract from the actual content of the text. So, it is with this high opinion of DIllard that I began to read An American Childhood. I was not dissappointed.
On the surface, the book is a memoir of Dillard’s early years in Pittsburgh, from birth through adolescence, in the 1950s. Dillard tells the story with the same skill as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and with the same attention to detail. She bounces between topics, describing her father’s wide-eyed trip down the Mississippi one summer after quitting his job, and her mother’s wit and command of the spoken word. The common thread in all of this is her childhood exuberance. The young Dillard is not only intelligent but hungering for knowledge of any sort, reading field guides, linguistic texts, and drawing how-tos. Reading up on her large rock collection, Dillard is surprised to discover adults with her own sense of wonder:
One book cautioned me against refining any gold I found…if I refined it in any way I was “obliged by law” to sell it to a licensed gold dealer…these, then, were books which advised, in detail, how to avoid making money, right here in America.
The descriptions of regular events like the family’s improving social status and country club sponsored cotillions, contrasts sharply with Dillard’s inner dialogue, the fervor of which grows and grows throughout the book, causing her to wonder if it will last:
Must I then lose the world forever, that I had so loved? Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?
An American Childhood has the marks of a typical memoir, but is made all the more enjoyable by Dillard’s mastery of language. Furthermore, the young Dillard’s refusual to be blasé about anything large or small in the universe, is echoed by her modern author’s voice and the depth of self-revelation. This is a book enjoyable from many angles, and though I’ve read only a small fraction of Dillard’s work, she is undoubtedly one of my favorite authors.