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Made in Texas: a writer's start

Pensive memoir recalls influences of place, times

A Strong West Wind
By Gail Caldwell
Random House, 227 pp., $24.95

''A Strong West Wind," Gail Caldwell's ruminative memoir, eloquently articulates how geographical place and historical moment influence feelings, opinions, and identities. Born in the Texas Panhandle in 1951, Caldwell experiences the ''I Like Ike" era, Camelot, the Vietnam years, the civil rights movement, and the second wave of US feminism living in Amarillo, Lubbock, and Austin. In the 1980s, she becomes a reviewer for The Boston Globe. Now a celebrated critic and literary juror, she has written for The Village Voice and The Washington Post as well as serving as the Globe's chief book critic. In 2001, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.

However, her first book isn't about success as a public intellectual, life in Boston, or contemporary publishing issues. Wisely choosing memoir over autobiography, Caldwell focuses on how the strong Texas wind blew her all the way to exotic Massachusetts. ''How do we become who we are?" she asks on Page 1. ''I was a girl whose father had taken such pride in her all her life, even when it was masked as rage, that he had lit a fire in me that would stay warm forever. I was the daughter of a . . . mother whose subterranean wish, long unrevealed, was that I might become who she could not."

From girlhood, Caldwell's language and vision are formed by her diverse reading. The grandchild of Texas farmers, she grows up feeling stifled in Amarillo. '' 'Yes, the town is dreary,' Carson McCullers wrote about the Southern backwater of her anti-idyll, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and that was Amarillo." Larry McMurtry grew up not too far away, in Archer City, and some readers will be reminded of his 1999 bibliophilic memoir, ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," by ''A Strong West Wind." Indeed, these books about literature's lifesaving properties are intriguing counterpoints because of differences in generation, gender, and sensibility.

Caldwell begins college at Texas Tech in Lubbock and ends up at the University of Texas in Austin, learning more outside the classroom. ''All those places I'd visited in books were accessible realities, had I the courage and volition to go looking -- to trade in my role as spectator for the drama itself. I had quaked when I read Tolstoy's description of Ivan Ilyich, facing the past from his deathbed, as a man whose life had been 'most ordinary and therefore most terrible.' "

Desperate to escape ''ordinary life," she leaves college and travels to California and Mexico, and eventually returns to Austin. She quits before finishing her PhD in American studies, having discovered that while she loves to write about books, she is no scholar. Caldwell's active opposition to the Vietnam War (freighted by knowledge of her father's proud World War II service) presages her critique of the current war in Iraq. Encountering feminism in the 1970s, it's as if she's found home. ''My life began to map its own course. . . . Feminism redirected the narrative. It was when the story, for a million protagonists, finally stopped being about somebody else."

''A Strong West Wind" beautifully illustrates a phenomenon overlooked by writers celebrating the 1960s as the counterculture's zenith. If the '60s were a time of questions and challenges, the 1970s were the decade when many sought to answer those questions and face those challenges. During these peripatetic, metamorphosing years, Caldwell supports herself with a variety of jobs likely to meet the disapproval of Sergeant Major Dad. ''When I worked at Grok Books, I got a few dollars an hour to read on the job as well as the full discount from the publishers; this meant that, along with Emma Goldman and Flaubert, my self-styled curriculum expanded to include the I Ching."

By young adulthood, her progressive views challenge and enhance the relationship with her father. ''He taught me how to drive a stick shift, kick the tires, get on a horse, bait a hook, and reel in a hammerhead shark from an ocean pier, but in keeping with the system, he rarely asked what I thought about anything."

Mr. Caldwell's legacy of courage and stubbornness prefigures his daughter's intellectual curiosity and committed citizenship. They also shape her matter-of-fact acceptance of the polio contracted in infancy. After years of physical therapy designed and conducted by her mother, Caldwell becomes fairly mobile. Ever stalwart about physical challenge, she is pithy, sometimes dismissive, about the affliction. ''In those pre-Title IX days, when being cool was considered superior to athletic prowess, I'd managed to turn my limp into a saunter."

Then she grows more reflective. ''Yet I feel sure that, as with many minor infirmities, mine merely slanted the life rather than defining it. . . . Almost certainly it ensured that I would be a reader. Unable to navigate the territory around me, I must have sent this stream of desire underground, assuring or at least accentuating an introspective personality."

Although ''A Strong West Wind" reveals more about the father-daughter relationship, Caldwell also recognizes her mother's gifts. ''My mother had neither begrudged me this journey nor expected it, certain that I had to make my own way. But she packed my toolbox with her great wit and forbearance before I went, and she stashed there, for long safekeeping, her desire."

Caldwell is a private person, an understated narrator less interested in entertaining with a dramatic linear narrative than in cogitating about consequences. ''A Strong West Wind" is gracefully discursive and aphoristic. While she is reticent about her polio, her romances, other passions, and daily habits, we do know that she enjoys reading, solitude, and rowing. More to the point, she is open-handed with beliefs and feelings. Readers hungry for a gossipy dinner party will be disappointed; those interested in candid, philosophical contemplation will have a good time here.

''We build our stories, like houses on the high mesa, with whatever is at hand: the lace and flotsam of memory, the words flung out, the distances forged. If we have any sense of hope, we scavenge for more; we keep rewriting the prayers."

Valerie Miner is the author of 12 books, including ''The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir." She teaches at Stanford University.

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