Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home – Leigh Newman
Growing up in the wilds of Alaska, seven-year-old Leigh Newman spent her time landing silver salmon, hiking glaciers, and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents unexpectedly divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her more urbane mother.
Navigating the fraught terrain of her family’s unraveling, Newman did what any outdoorsman would do: She adapted. With her father she fished remote rivers, hunted caribou, and packed her own shotgun shells. With her mother she memorized the names of antique furniture, composed proper bread-and-butter notes, and studied Latin poetry at a private girl’s school. Charting her way through these two very different worlds, Newman learned to never get attached to people or places, and to leave others before they left her. As an adult, she explored the most distant reaches of the globe as a travel writer, yet had difficulty navigating the far more foreign landscape of love and marriage.
Review: Memoirs are so hard to review! What am I even supposed to say? “Yes, author, your life is sufficiently entertaining. I approve.” Well, I approve of this memoir. It is sufficiently entertaining.
Leigh Newman spends her early childhood in Alaska with her “Great Alaskan Father.” He flies his own plane, hunts, fishes, and lives off the land. Leigh’s mother isn’t as enthusiastic about all the nature stuff. When Leigh is seven, her parents divorce, and she moves to a wealthy part of Baltimore with her mother. She suddenly finds herself in a world of private schools, petty girl cliques, and museum trips. When she grows up, Leigh becomes a travel writer and travels all over the world, but she never feels at home anywhere. This memoir explores how the places we live shape who we become. What happens if you don’t feel like you belong anywhere?
“If you can't be yourself with yourself, how can you be you with other people?” – Still Points North
Unlike a lot of other memoir authors, Leigh Newman can definitely write. The book is full of keen observations and vivid descriptions. The author helps the reader see Alaska and Baltimore and how difficult it is to transition between the two. There are some heartbreaking scenes in this book. It all feels very honest.
I think anybody who has kids and is going through a divorce needs to read this memoir. It shows the importance of communicating with your kids and letting them know why their lives are changing. You can’t just dump them into a new world and expect everything to work out fine. It won’t work out fine.
I was surprised at the humor and liveliness of the writing style. Divorce is a depressing subject, but the book isn’t depressing. Some parts of it remind me of Jenny Lawson’s memoirs (but with less over-the-top ridiculousness). So, if you like Jenny Lawson’s books, you’ll probably like this one. The ending is hopeful. Leigh learns that parents are human. They make mistakes. Just because a parent screws up doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Overall, this is an uplifting book.
“Pain only seems scary while you're waiting for it to happen. After it does, it's just hurt and recovery.” – Still Points North
I have the same problem with this memoir that I have with a lot of others. I don’t see the author/narrator the same way she sees herself. A lot of this book reads like a list of “all the ways my parents’ divorce ruined my life.” But, from my perspective, the author’s life wasn’t ruined. It seems like her parents were pretty wealthy, even though her mother worked all the time. Leigh (mostly) went to great schools. She moved to New York, became a travel writer, got to see the world. She had a family of her own. This life doesn’t seem too messed up to me. Actually, it sounds like an amazing life. I’d like to see the world.
Despite my complaint, I really like this book. I read most of it in one night. The author’s voice pulled me in and made me want to keep reading.
TL;DR: Engaging memoir about divorce and belonging. I recommend it.