BookBrowse Reviews A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell

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A Strong West Wind

by Gail Caldwell

A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2007, 256 pages

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A magical and unforgettable book, destined to become an American classic. Memoir

From the book jacket: In this exquisitely rendered memoir set on the high plains of Texas, Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell transforms into art what it is like to come of age in a particular time and place. A Strong West Wind begins in the 1950s in the wilds of the Texas Panhandle – a place of both boredom and beauty, its flat horizons broken only by oil derricks, grain elevators, and church steeples. Its story belongs to a girl who grew up surrounded by dust storms and cattle ranches and summer lightning, who took refuge from the vastness of the land and the ever-present wind by retreating into books. What she found there, from renegade women to men who lit out for the territory, turned out to offer a blueprint for her own future. Caldwell would grow up to become a writer, but first she would have to fall in love with a man who was every mother's nightmare, live through the anguish and fire of the Vietnam years, and defy the father she adored, who had served as a master sergeant in the Second World War.

A Strong West Wind is a memoir of culture and history - of fathers and daughters, of two world wars and the passionate rebellions of the sixties. But it is also about the mythology of place and the evolution of a sensibility: about how literature can shape and even anticipate a life.

Comment: Pulitzer Prize-winner Caldwell's memoir opens with her upbringing in 1950s and '60s Amarillo, in the heart of the Texas Bible Belt, where she was raised in a close-knit family by patriotic conservative parents.  She grew up into a fast changing world marked by rock-and-roll, women's lib, free-love and war.  Her memories are laced with nostalgia for the Texas she knew and loved, and the people, especially her parents, who's grit and determination, personified the State for her.  However, from her early teens, she knew she needed to break away.  

Inspired by Thomas Wolfe's first novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929)* she left home to find her destiny, having had an inkling of what that might be during a summer internship with the local newspaper, where she discovered "a work world where eccentrics reigned."   In the context, it is apt that she has taken the title of her book from Exodus 1:19: And the Lord changed the wind to a very strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea.

Her writing style is strong, but occasionally slips a little too far into rhetoric which (to quote Publishers Weekly) "is not deep enough to sink a ship [but] is sufficient to leave the author floating too often in 'poetic' abstraction when she should be grounded in prose that is both penetrating and precise."  Despite this minor criticism both PW and Booklist give her starred reviews and all agree that this is a thoughtfully written tale that ably explores how we become the people we are through the lens of one woman's life.

*Thomas Clayton Wolfe (1990-1938) is considered one of America's most important 20th century novelist. He died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis on the brain.

This review was originally published in February 2006, and has been updated for the January 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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