Carolyn Holbrook’s life is peopled with ghosts—of the girl she was, the selves she shed and those who have caught up to her, the wounded and kind and malevolent spirits she’s encountered, and also the beloved souls she’s lost and those she never knew who beg to have their stories told. “Now don’t you go stirring things up,” one ghostly aunt counsels. Another smiles encouragingly: “Don’t hold back, child. Someone out there needs to hear what you have to say.”
Once a pregnant sixteen-year-old incarcerated in the Minnesota juvenile justice system, now a celebrated writer, arts activist, and teacher who helps others unlock their creative power, Holbrook has heeded the call to tell the story of her life, and to find among its chapters—the horrific and the holy, the wild and the charmed—the lessons and necessary truths of those who have come before. In a memoir woven of moments of reckoning, she summons stories born of silence, stories held inside, untold stories stifled by pain or prejudice or ignorance. A child’s trauma recalls her own. An abusive marriage returns to haunt her family. She builds a career while raising five children as a single mother; she struggles with depression and grapples with crises immediate and historical, all while countenancing the subtle racism lurking under “Minnesota nice.”
Here Holbrook poignantly traces the path from her troubled childhood to her leadership positions in the Twin Cities literary community, showing how creative writing can be a powerful tool for challenging racism and the healing ways of the storyteller’s art.
Carolyn Holbrook has accomplished wonderful and amazing things—not the least of which is raising five children on her own and earning a doctorate. She encountered obstacles, prejudice, and sexism, and overcame them all, and her story is empowering, uplifting, and inspiring.
Some parts of the book bogged me down a bit, as they seemed repetitive or jumped around in time and/or subject. I felt that lessened the impact of Holbrook’s message as it allowed the reader to become distracted. I know this is an essay collection ranging over 25 years, so to an extent it’s understandable, but it’s still a distraction for the reader—and some people stop reading as soon as the author loses their interest.
Carolyn Holbrook created SASE: The Write Place; she’s a professor of creative writing and has won awards in her work for the arts. Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify is her newest book.
(Galley courtesy of University of Minnesota Press in exchange for an honest review.)