By Sarah M. Wells
Resource Books, 2021Buy Book
At a recent nonfiction conference I attended, Sarah Wells was on a panel of debut memoir authors. Wells’s bio describes her as a faith-based writer. I am not a believer, nor am I not a believer. Though there was nothing overtly “Christian” about the first essay she read (“A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation”), the moment she began to read, I began to scowl and fidget. My predisposition to pre-judge her work, and her, because of her religious beliefs, shamed me. As a writer, I understand the importance and power of story to communicate basic human values and truths. At the break, I purchased Wells’s collection.
American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation is a collection of 26 personal essays that range from flash length to complex braided narratives. They plait recent life experience with backstory and, in some instances, family history and lore (the Wells family has lived on and farmed the same land since the mid-1800s).
In “The Seeds You Sow,” the author describes an early morning routine familiar to many working mothers. We wish our young children would stay asleep so we can slip out of the house and beat traffic, while at the same time feeling conflicted, leaving precious loved ones for a job that sustains the family. The title of the essay and its last sentence are examples of the motifs from nature that appear throughout the collection, reflecting both the inevitability of growth, renewal, and change, and the narrator’s family’s rootedness in the land. Wells writes:
I back out of the driveway and watch the silence, imagine my house and its inhabitants entering the day as I leave, speed and brake and accelerate, this is the life I want, signal and yield and merge, this is the life I want, away, away, away. Brandon makes himself a cup of coffee and settles in beside Henry. By the end of the half hour, I will be in the shadow of skyscrapers. By the end of the half hour, Curious George will have figured out that fruit grows from the seeds you sow.
With this repeated italicized refrain—this is the life I want, this is the life I want—the closing paragraph also captures a dichotomy familiar to many working mothers, that sense of wanting to work, enjoying a job, yet feeling conflicted when it comes at a price: not being present for those irretrievable chunks of childhood.
Several essays in the collection are about the contradictory messages girls receive regarding what’s pretty, sexy, appropriate, right, and wrong. In “Somebody’s Daughter,” coming-of-age scenes reveal the development of the narrator’s self-image. We sense her push-and-pull feelings of striving to be a good girl and, at the same time, desperately craving to be noticed and desired. As a mother, she wonders how much of the conflicting feelings, desires, and insecurities she’s absorbed and carried into adulthood have already rubbed off on her young daughter. Wells writes:
My daughter is six and standing in front of the mirror with a long-sleeved maroon dress on her rail of a body, beautiful already with her loose blonde curls and blue eyes, joy leaking out of her pores. She is watching how the dress moves with her. She pulls the strings around the back tightly and says she likes it that way. How often have I hovered in front of the same mirror, turned my back to the reflection and then looked over my shoulder? Every piece of glass I pass, I glance toward that dark image to see if I can see what others see when they walk by me. To see if there’s any beauty showing.
As “The Worst Soccer Mom” begins, the narrator is in heels and work clothes, maneuvering three young children (ages six, five, and sixteen months), as she struggles to find her son’s soccer team.
All the other parents look up from their lawn chairs at me and I smile and nod, gripping the handle, imagining my hair frizzed out, purse slipping down my arm, shirt skewed slantways off my shoulder, bra strap sticking out. I’m not wearing glasses but if I was they’d be falling off my nose.
In other parts of “The Worst Soccer Mom,” the narrator recalls when she didn’t “hate” sports, when sports meant watching her husband’s competitiveness as he was on the field while she was on the sidelines with the drill team. At home, husband Brandon attempts to practice soccer with the two older children. Brandon, who coaches for work, is gone weekends. The narrator is left to schlep the kids to games and practice. She writes:
I hate sports on mornings like these because they make me feel incompetent. They expose the side of me that isn’t sharpened and honed, that isn’t professional and collected. They reveal the skillset I lack; no one is impressed with my resume on Saturday when I forget the snack. No, I am not actually perfect; no, I cannot actually do everything, like I try to do. No, this isn’t fun, and I hate that you are seeing me this way.
I found myself wondering if I would have envied her and imagined that she was the one who had it all together and I was the incompetent one. Isn’t that what too many women—mothers struggling with balancing competing responsibilities—do to themselves? Just as the narrator imagined the other parents looking up and thinking she was a complete mess, I can recall doing the same, arriving at some event, feeling unprepared, worrying that my children weren’t behaving well, and that all eyes were on me, judging me.
Wells recalls her daughter’s last basketball game of the season, when the announcer asks the crowd to stand to honor two fathers who have just returned from a year of active military duty. Later, at the team’s meeting, the narrator recognizes the two girls and their mothers, women she had judged as “having it all together.” She begins to look more closely at all of the team parents and to see them differently. Wells writes:
I look around the room of parents. Suddenly I see them. The grandparents who are there each week are with their recently divorced daughter. The mother next to me just got off the night shift. The mother in another row has a husband who drives trucks for a living, leaves at six in the evening and returns the next day at eleven to sleep for five hours, see his wife and their kids, and then leave again. As Henry arches his back against the floor and cries, their stares now feel a little bit more like mercy and a little less like judgment. Suddenly I am not so alone.
Rereading this essay, and this passage in particular, I am reminded to look around the room, whatever room I find myself in. Just as our differences aren’t always evident on the surface, the broad swaths of common ground we share are sometimes hard to see. I am struck by how much common ground there is within the world of the essays that comprise American Honey, whether you identify as a Christian or not. I recommend American Honey for Sarah Wells’s command of craft, and for her insights and perspectives on the complexities of motherhood and the challenges of balancing the competing expectations society has placed on women, particularly mothers, in a rapidly changing world.