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In a flood of memoirs, ‘Family Bible' stands out

Pam Kelley
Pam Kelley
Pam Kelley is the Reading Life editor for The Charlotte Observer.

In a recent article titled “So You Want to Write a Memoir?” Entertainment Weekly questions whether there's anything left to say in that crowded genre, considering “everyone who's ever had a life seems to have published a book about it.”

The magazine then lists dozens and dozens of recent autobiographies – tales of surviving adolescence, middle age, infertility, divorce, big breasts, fat camp, baldness. Of struggles with alcohol, cocaine, meth, Ritalin, gambling. Of dealing with polio, Asperger's, anxiety, cancer, hypochondria.

By the end of the list, it's easy to conclude: Yep, all covered.

But really, no. Because good autobiography isn't just recollection. A well-told memoir distills wisdom from memories, helping readers see their own lives and society in new ways.

Melissa Delbridge's “Family Bible,” ($23.95, University of Iowa Press,) is a fine example. Delbridge, who will speak at Park Road Books on Wednesday, works as a Duke University archivist, an unlikely-seeming job for a whiskey-loving woman who can shoot a gun and bluff at poker.

In her book, described as “quietly stunning” by Poets & Writers magazine, she recounts growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala, in the '60s, the daughter of a charming, philandering father and a mother who took the brave step of leaving him. Her stories – funny, heartbreaking and woven with fresh observations on race, gender and sexuality – offer a window on that time and place.

“Swimming and sex seemed a lot alike to me when I was growing up on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa,” she writes in the prologue. “You took off most of your clothes to do them and you only did them with people who were the same color as you. As your daddy got richer, you got to do them in fancier places.”

Delbridge writes with compassion for her characters, even for the stepfather who sexually abused her. Abandoned by his own mother, “Billy Linney never had a close friend. He never belonged to any organization other than his gym and the United States Marine Corps. He did not own one pair of socks in a color besides white.”

By age 17, she stood up for herself and “put an end to his groping,” but she couldn't abide living with him or the mother who refused to believe her daughter's accusations. She left the house and never returned.

But she eventually made peace with her stepfather's transgressions. “Cut people some slack,” she writes, “or you end up snakebit crazy with the poison of the things they'll do.”

In an interview, Delbridge told me she suspects memoirs keep selling because we've all got a hunger to connect with others. Since her book came out in April, she hears from a steady stream of readers who feel a connection with her.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271; pkelley@charlotteobserver.com.

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