Staci Lola Drouillard's new memoir has many merits, none more important than its generous spirit. Rather than grabbing the lead role for herself, the Grand Marais, Minn., author cedes the spotlight to family members who taught her valuable lessons about history, love and family.
"Seven Aunts" is a rich group portrait of her parents' sisters. Betty, Carol, Diane, Doreen, Faye, Gloria and Lila all spent at least some of their lives on Lake Superior's North Shore. Mothers and wives, homemakers and wage earners, they stabilized families threatened by privation, illness and discrimination.
Drouillard's aim — "to help ease the pain of the past" — implicitly encourages readers to step away from modern life's hurries and consider their forebears' experiences. A chapter on her Aunt Lila showcases this candid, affectionate book's understated charms.
When Drouillard was 10, her mother, Joyce, who had obsessive-compulsive disorder, underwent electroshock therapy. During Joyce's hospitalization, Drouillard stayed with Lila and her husband, Leroy. Lila, married at 17, raised a big family while enduring her husband's binge drinking and the repossession of her home.
In Grand Rapids, Minn., Drouillard's aunt and uncle would take their canoe to a rice bog, where Leroy "would pole the canoe" as Lila gathered "ripened rice grains" with "hand-fashioned wild rice knocking sticks." Using her aunt's sticks as an adult helped Drouillard "reconnect" with Lila and Leroy. "Good work done with strong hands can help us heal from the hurts of the past," she writes.
But healing isn't easy, as we're reminded by Drouillard's Aunt Carol chapter. Carol was so terrified of her "gruff and explosive" father that, according to Drouillard's mother, she "wouldn't even walk by his chair to go to bed." Carol's "angst" manifested itself in upsetting ways, Drouillard writes: "Aunt Betty and my mother both remember seeing [Carol] ritualistically pull out her own eyelashes and put them in her mouth."
Conversely, Drouillard's Aunt Diane managed "to break free" from convention, having a romantic relationship with a woman and getting a college degree. Committed to forthrightness, Droulliard also informs us that Diane was somewhat scandalous. While working as a prison guard in St. Cloud, Diane and a male prisoner were "allegedly embroiled in a love affair."
This book has its cliches and missteps. If there's one phrase that ought to be stricken from the language, it's surely "labor of love." Meanwhile, when writing about mental illnesses that are complicated and mysterious, Drouillard tends to oversimplify. More often, though, her prose is clear and personable.
As she noted in her book "Walking the Old Road," Drouillard has strong Ojibwe roots on her father Francis' side. Bullies mocked Francis' heritage when he was a boy. One day, two kids ganged up on him — until "his older sister Doreen showed up and started beating the hell out of" his antagonists, Drouillard writes.
"The carrier of our family Ojibwe history," Doreen "was of the earth. She fought with her hands, fists, legs, and wit," earning herself a role as a righteous scrapper in her niece's disarming book.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
By: Staci Lola Drouillard.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 312 pages, $21.95.
Events: 6 p.m. June 24, Drury Lane Books, Grand Marais; 7 p.m. June 28, Zenith Books, Duluth.