Looking forward to reading it

Web-posted Saturday, February 4, 2006
Amarillo native recounts her youth

Pulitzer winner’s memoir arrives in stores Tuesday

Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Gail Caldwell feels tethered to Texas, though poignantly less grounded in the Amarillo of her roots.

Caldwell, a Boston Globe critic who won the Pulitzer for Distinguished Criticism in 2001, lost her last tie to her native Amarillo even as volumes of her new memoir, “A Strong West Wind” – available in stores Tuesday – arrived at her Cambridge, Mass., home.

Her mother, longtime Amarilloan Ruby Caldwell, died Jan. 20 at the age of 91.

“I have a very mixed reaction right now,” Caldwell, 55, said Friday. “I just lost my mom and I came in and there were all these books from Random House just waiting for me, and my heart just sort of broke. It was very hard to get on that plane and leave that Amarillo sky.

“I’ve been in the East for a quarter century, but there’s always been this odd sense that Texas was this tether, even if I turned my back on it.”

Caldwell’s memoir covers her “flight” from Amarillo – encouraged by her mother – and her “idyllic” childhood here as parts of the framework of the first 30 years of her life, especially the 1950s and 1960s, Caldwell said.

“Books that are classics, they’re not about a person only,” she said. “They are about a person living in a time that is somehow evoked by that life story. I found myself searching for what seems to be the scaffolding of a life, and they were not particularly things that happened to me. It was sort of the way I view my entire upbringing and understand who I am today.”

In fact, the book’s opening page queries “How do we become who we are?” in a paragraph that invokes Caldwell’s mother, who as a farm girl had stolen away to read and ultimately wished her daughter “might become who she could not.”

“The real beauty of the question – How do we become who we are? – is that by the time we are old enough to ask it, to understand its infinite breadth, it is too late to do much about it,” Caldwell writes. “That is not the sorrow of hindsight, but its music: That is what grants us a bearable past.”

The extraordinary in childhood is the ordinary, Caldwell said, recalling the slower pace of life in Amarillo with her mother, father Bill, and sister Pamela Morrison, now living in Santa Fe, N.M.

“I began writing this book in a really wintery spring in my study in Cambridge, Mass., and it was snowing outside and I was sitting here overwhelmed with memories,” Caldwell said. “It was really a different way of life. I see people with kids who have schedules that are busier than most CEOs. We played jacks. We drove around on Sunday afternoons with my father. We had animals. We watched my mother garden. It was the most boring and idyllic childhood imaginable.

“I think that’s what childhood is, if you’re lucky. It’s both boring and idyllic.”

Bill Caldwell’s death in 2003 at age 89 stirred even more the memories his daughter had begun to collect as she started writing “A Strong West Wind.”

Discovering the love letters her father wrote to her mother from England during World War II gave Caldwell another thread to her scaffolding.

“I found this second story, which was sort of a beautiful story,” she said. “The story of my parents is very important in this, the way that they met. It’s the myths and dreams that all families have that influence generations to come.”

Cultural and historical shifts of the 1960s – war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and other events – infused Caldwell’s memories of the Panhandle with contrasting context.

“It sort of became a different place to be fled,” she said. “But everyone goes through that. If you’re a kid, you need to get away from where you are. You need to get out. I think that’s the great myth and reality that America’s founded on, you know, lighting out for new territory.

“My mother always said, ‘Why, honey, get out of here. Everybody needs to leave.’ There was that sense of coming of age, that what you do is test your wings.”

Perhaps the best compliment Caldwell has been paid by advance readers of the memoir came from someone who said he wished he had paid more attention as a child. Caldwell attributes the evocative detail in her book to hindsight and realization.

“The fact is, I don’t think I paid attention either,” Caldwell said. “When you start searching your own archives, you hit upon these moments of beauty or serenity or kindness that you would not have known what they were at the time.”

Remembering a ‘small, sleepy town’

Amarillo looms in author Gail Caldwell’s mind as a “small, sleepy town where not a lot happened and the sky was bigger than anything.”

Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Boston Globe, evokes that Amarillo in her new memoir, “A Strong West Wind,” which will hit shelves Tuesday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Hastings Books, Music and Video stores.

“I think about the institutions that I remember that shaped me,” she said, naming the Mary E. Bivins Library, now the site of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce; the Silver Grill Cafeteria, a downtown landmark that faded into history; and the Amarillo Globe-News, where Caldwell worked in the newsroom “morgue” as a teen.

The job “was one of those pivotal moments in your adolescence you look back on. I remember Mary Kate with great fondness,” Caldwell said, referring to retired Globe-News editor Mary Kate Tripp, who supervised the tearing of newspaper clippings for the files. “Mary Kate was this formidable force who had a T-square and a red pencil.”

Tripp didn’t recall feeling like a force, she said Friday, but she did remember the red pencil.

“She was a smart girl. I’m very proud of her,” Tripp said of Caldwell. “She’s been a real success story. She had all the stuff when she was here, and she just polished it.”

– Karen D. Smith

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