Book Review: Growing up in Cat Pleska’s West Virginia
By Lee Maynard
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
“Riding on Comets: A Memoir,” by Cat Pleska. WVU Press. 236 pages.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — We are our memories. Without them, we have no history, no loves, no hates. No life. We would cease to exist.
These are Cat Pleska’s memories, vignettes from the inquisitive mind of a child-girl-woman constantly managing to bloom in the isolated world of Appalachia, where a visit by a touring carnival is the highlight of the year.
Cat Pleska remembers. Cat Pleska exists. She exists in her prose, which, like the life it surrounds, is spare, undecorated, hiding nothing. It is unadorned language — like the unadorned lives it describes — a language of cadence and lilt that brings to life the musical flow of the words of the older people as they ring down to the young.
These are the memories full of metaphors, fleeting pictures of the bare daily existence of growing up in a way that may be understandable only by those who have shared it:
- Biting into a mud pie — a first lesson that things are not always what they seem.
- A young girl shaving off half an eyebrow, and replacing it with a “woolly worm,” only to have it crawl away, as life crawls away.
- A preschool girl in a pickup truck, parked on the edge of a cock fight, in a world of men.
- Devil faces peering from the bedroom closet in the darkest hours of the night.
- The disappearing glow of fireflies in a jar — the mystical metaphor of life dying before a young girl’s eyes.
- A Christmas Eve stunted by blood spattered into a pristine, white kitchen sink.
- A mother standing at the door and looking out, always looking out, “drowning in sighs.”
- As an adult, conquering the childhood fear of sitting on the devil’s seat.
- Waiting for the “dead-people-takers.”
- Finding your dead mother’s journal, the pages mostly blank — like the blank pages of her dreams.
But childhood ends, and the realities of life and death become stamped in Pleska’s memory, carried through the years. The realities of strong men, made weak by their own demons; of even stronger women, without whom Appalachian families would crumble at unbearable speed.
Do not be fooled by the gloss of memory. Pleska describes the surface life of a young girl, young woman, woman. But the surface is underlain with the realities of darkest Appalachia, the depth of feeling, and the not-acknowledged mistakes of a hardscrabble life. The words lull you, and then an event that jolts the mind is dropped almost casually into the narrative.
You must read between the lines — Pleska does not hit you with a hammer to tell her stories, she drifts gentle atmospheres and realities across your mind until you are there with her.
And somewhere in her early days there is a desperate epiphany in a young mind that things do not have to repeat themselves — they do not. Not even when the generations force themselves upon you, not even when others you love cannot break the pattern. Even in barrenness, wisdom is imparted. It is a victory of the soul.
As a West Virginian, long gone from my home state, Cat Pleska pulled me back. I was there, deep inside her words, returning to live in those clear, simple declarations of days lived barrenly, yet rich in the tides of life.
Cat Pleska was a child, and now a woman, who is tapped into another world, accepting it as part of growing up in Appalachia. She sees the devil faces, hears the not-there sounds. And rides on comets.
Read these stories. Read them carefully. Read between the lines.