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May 6, 2016

Mary Volmer: By Stories I Know You

Posted by emily

Although Mary Volmer and her mother experienced vastly different childhoods, they have one sure thing in common: a deep and abiding passion for reading. Her mother grew up roaming the American West, the daughter of ranch workers, who stopped moving in order to have a family and a home of her own. But even though she’ll never know the girl her mother once was, Mary never stops searching for her in the books she loves. Mary’s latest book, RELIANCE, ILLINOIS --- set in the late 19th century, the story of a girl marked since birth, who finds her place in the world as the aide to a brilliant suffragette --- is now available.

Mom grew up the daughter of ranch workers, a hardscrabble, nomadic existence in northern Nevada and California. In fifth grade she moved three times, attending three different schools in and around the head waters of the Humboldt River, a high plateau spotted by sagebrush and marked by wide open skies that felt, some nights, close enough to touch. The one constant, beyond hard physical work, were the books her mother bought on rare trips to town. A box of books traveled with them place to place --- a luxury, and one that kept her mother, my Nana, if not happy, then sane. 

When she graduated high school, Mom moved away from ranch life. She became a school librarian, then a teacher. She married a preacher’s son who, like her, wanted nothing more than to build a home and stay there. By the time I was born, their home was filled with books.

Mom’s relationship to books, never as desperate as Nana’s, has always been passionate. And though I have endured little in the way of hardship or displacement, books and stories have proven no less necessary to me. Stories, more than anything else, bind me to my mother. I suspect my hunger for frontier tales grew from a desire to know her --- that is, to know the girl she was before she was my mother: that dust-covered blonde in Levi’s, grinning from the back of a horse in old photographs. I searched for her in stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Larry McMurtry and Zane Gray, all of which Mom loved and read aloud from the time I was small --- as if she, too, were searching for the self she left behind.

Not that Mom has ever been one for nostalgia; she enjoys a good story, but she wouldn’t return to that life, given the chance, or wish it on me. She allowed my cowboy fantasies, but also fed me books I needed to discover myself, apart from her: RAMONA QUIMBY, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, JOHNNY TREMAIN, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, BELOVED, THE RED TENT.

I grew up and moved away. Did what Mom never had the chance to do: play college sports, sing in choirs, live in foreign countries. I read books she wouldn’t like or approve --- as a teen, I read them because she wouldn’t approve. My adult life became, over time, as exotic to her as her girlhood had been to me.

Often, now I glimpse Mom’s face in my own reflection; I hear her voice bubbling beneath mine each night as I read to my son. Twice a week, we talk on the phone. Inevitably we talk about books --- the ones we’re reading, the ones I’m writing. When she asks me what I’m reading, I know she’s asking something more: “Who are you now that you’ve grown away from me? Can I find the woman you’ve become in the pages of your books?”

Yes, I want to tell her. You’ll find me, as I found you, in the stories we share.