Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Amber Heart: The Archetypal Journey of the Heroine, A Memoir by Susan Tossman Blue

When a friend of mine asked me to take a look at this book and possibly review it here, I was skeptical for a couple of reasons, not least of which was because it's a memoir. My review would be read by the person who actually lived the story, not by an author who created the characters just for his/her reader's enjoyment. That particular fear was put aside the moment I read the first paragraph. Susan Tossman Blue has written a gem; a memoir that serves to grip and teach at the same time. It's her life story, yes, but it's so well-written and the story so enlightening and yes, I'll even use the term "uplifting," that you can't help but come away at the last page questioning  the path of your own personal journey through life.

The novel starts with the author finding an antique amber heart. The heart, she believes is a metaphor for her own, locked and unmoving, held in place by past experience and early life trauma. Coupled with her affinity for a stand of trees on her grandfather's farm, the only place where she found acceptance and love in her strict, religious upbringing, she uses these two "tools" as a way to get past that childhood and come to terms and love the person she has become.

The book is divided into four parts, each serving its own purpose, and each builds upon the previous section to reveal a story sometimes too painful to read. Ms. Blue is coy about revealing too much too early, and this works very well. We come to wonder about her physical breakdown, the scars on her lower body, her previously broken jaw and nose. What happened? Where did these come from? Until the second part of the book, we don't know, but we have clues. And those clues keep us turning the pages.

On her trip home, in the section entitled Awareness, we get the background we were waiting for. Revelations come fast and furious, and her childhood of parental abuse, denigration and repression, all in the name of God and mental illness and family dysfunction are revealed to us. Instead of recoiling in horror at the past the author has endured, we become wrapped up in the thought that this is a survivor, and we, as readers, come to understand why she is the way she is, and begin to acknowledge that  we want her to let go, forgive herself for what she shouldn't have been blamed for in the first place and reach that place of acceptance and love that anyone would hope to find in their own life.

There are some wonderful secondary characters who Susan brings to life for us. The first is her husband Jack, who adds some wonderful commentary to the telling of this story. My favorite quote of his is this one, which is said to Susan in relation to her family, "the fact that you might love yourself is a threat." In addition to Jack, there are Susan's paternal grandparents, on whose farm she finds such peace, and her maternal grandmother. There's her therapist Nicole and her doctors, Simon and Dennis, and Dr. Valentine, who help her to recover physically so that she can pursue the emotional side of her journey. And her "wondercat," Tybee, also plays an intricate role in her recovery.

I highlighted many passages from this book in the course of my reading it, and intend to go back and re-read when I have the chance. While my life experiences do not compare with the author's, there are enough lessons for the reader to take away and apply. And days later, I'm still thinking about all of them.