Over the past several years I have read dozens of memoirs (also known as literary non-fiction) and I have observed that they fall into one of two categories. One type of memoir is an adult’s reminiscences of child hood or a past chapter of their life—usually bad or awkward or troubled. In this first category of memoir, the adult is looking back to a childhood usually brimming with pain and viewing it with clarity and new insights. In this genre, I have read books about anorexic or alcoholic or promiscuous teen years. I have read tales of parents who are crazy or aunts who were missing or children who had radical surgeries performed upon them when parents thought they were doing it in the best interest of the child. Some of these tales are funny or sad or just plain self-indulgent.
The second type of memoir is what I like to call the “stunt” book. A writer sets parameters or rules by which they will live their life for a specified period of time (usually, one year) that are thought provoking and then writes about their social experiment. After a year, they write the “what-did-I learn-about-myself- my-world-and-my-community” memoir. Some I have read include: a year without electricity, a year with only eating locally grown foods and a year without buying anything made in China.
When I got my latest early review copy, Do Over: In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom and other embarrassments, from Library Thing, I thought I had picked up the “stunt” book type of memoir. It looked a little dull, and I was eager to read it and get it over with. The premise is that the writer, Robin Hemley, has decided to re-do parts of his childhood that were unhappy or did not go well. He picked 10 events or time periods from Kindergarten to High School and spent the better part of a year re-visiting those time periods in an effort to make better memories and learn something about himself.
He sets up a series of rules about how these events will transpire and writes 10 essays- one about each experience. He revisits Kindergarten, 6th grade and 8th grade. He re-does summer camp, study abroad in Japan, a school play that went awry, goes to his first prom and explores the notion of home for someone who never lived in one place for very long while growing up.
I was very surprised that this stunt turned into a poignant and charming traditional memoir. As he relived all his child-hood faux pas as an adult, he told his own story. It is revealed slowly and in roughly chronological order with the saddest and sweetest tales coming toward the end. The death of his mother, the feelings that accompany the notion of not really having a true place to call home, and regrets at youthful bad behavior.
Mr Hemley achieves something rare in almost every essay. He manages to meet his younger self while navigating the cafeterias and classrooms of his youth and come away with surprising clarity and insight about all his different re-dos. I found myself wrapped up in his little experiment and I cheered for him wildly as each chapter unfolded with minimal awkwardness and an unexpected amount of good karma and genuine interest in his project. His writing is both touching and at times very very funny.
As both a traditional narrative memoir and a “stunt” memoir it is effective and well thought out. Both types of story-telling are expertly woven together. I applaud Mr. Hemley’s courage. I tried to think of some way I might re-do something I hated about my youth and the only thing I could think of to do would not even be worth trying. If I was successful I am not sure how much it would mean to me.
I was pleasantly surprised by this well crafted work of non-fiction. If you enjoy well written memoir--this is a prefect choice.