March 03, 2016


Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir. By Helen Peppe. Da Capo. $14.99.

     Memoirs ae not known for being sweetness-and-light recollections of childhood. They are generally retrospective workings-out of issues left over from an author’s early years, an attempt to come to grips, in the public forum of a book, with a childhood that fell short in innumerable (if always individual) ways. There is a certain level of authorial masochism to letting everything “hang out” in book form, and a certain level of displaced masochism for readers in examining someone else’s family’s proverbial dirty laundry. So readers of Pigs Can’t Swim will go into it knowing pretty much what to expect – and that is pretty much what they will get. Oddly, the book is dedicated to Peppe’s parents, who, to put it charitably, do not come off well in it; but whether this is fence-mending, guilt or something else is never quite clear. The intent of Pigs Can’t Swim is to show the large and small things that save us from the excesses and difficulties of childhood, and to communicate that message of earthly salvation in a wry, poignant style. The dedication to Peppe’s parents appears to be part of this overall approach.

     Peppe, now a writer and photographer, grew up as the youngest of nine children of a homemaker mother who left school after eighth grade and a father who worked as a janitor and handyman for the local post office for 25 years. The family lived in rural Maine and determinedly defined itself as middle class even though there were constant money issues and those who knew the family considered it pretty much the definition of hardscrabble. The household was, unsurprisingly, chaotic, and there was plenty of drinking, smoking, fighting and sex to keep the older children occupied and distracted. For her part, Peppe defined herself by asking questions that made other people, especially her parents, uncomfortable, notably about animals’ feelings: it was her own feelings for animals that led to her becoming a vegetarian and eventually an animal photographer. Peppe, in her own explanation, did better as a child with animals than with people, especially favoring dogs and horses. Loving to read – a fact that caused her problems at one point when she failed in her duty as lookout for siblings engaged in activities of which their parents, to put it mildly, did not approve – Peppe was soon attracted to books by British veterinarian James Herriott and later, somewhat surprisingly, to those of fellow Maine resident Stephen King. Peppe tells readers that King’s frightening worlds seemed safer to her than her everyday reality, but the explanation is not totally convincing; nevertheless, it is the only one she provides.

     Peppe’s coming-of-age story, although surely different in particulars from those of most readers, is at bottom just another tale of family dysfunction and the compromises required, day in and day out, to make it through life. By the time she starts high school, Peppe has survived sexual assault as well as the taunts of her family, which considers her “queer” (in its old meaning of “peculiar,” not its more-recent homosexual connotation). She begins dating Eric, a pastor’s pianist son – who, she says, looked “a bit like a chimpanzee,” but who played as if he belonged at Juilliard. Parental disapproval and a miscarriage at age 16 only strengthen the young people’s bond, and Eric eventually becomes her husband, so we have a happy ending (or happy life-in-progress) there. But Peppe goes through a lot – memoir writers always do – to get to a stable adulthood. “Unless I made myself a pest, I was invisible,” she says at one point, and it is in her “pest” guise, notably through her intellect and questioning ways, that she makes the greatest impression.

     A leavening of humor helps make what is essentially a downbeat (if determinedly positive) story something other than a slog to read. Peppe is a good storyteller, and her accounts of a barn fire, a swimming piglet, the imagined depredations of a local ghost, and an exploding pressure cooker help offset the sadness of her family’s circumstances. Whether she has a really good memory or is prone to embellishment, she writes with charm, and that is worth a lot. The reality of everyday drudgery is never far away, though. For example, there was only a single house key shared among 12 people, and Peppe once had to break a cellar window when she got home early from kindergarten and desperately needed to use the bathroom. There is another reality here as well, one made evident by Peppe’s decision not to give her siblings’ names in the book but instead to talk about them as, for example, her “blustery-and-favored brother,” her “sister-who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God,” her “tough-yet-admirable sister,” her “hair-twirling-pretty sister,” her “sister-of-poor-choices,” and so forth. Whatever Peppe’s professed reasons for this stylistic oddity (which soon becomes tiresome), this labeling shows that for young Peppe, and perhaps even for Peppe today, her family members were collections of personality traits rather than separate and distinct individuals. That may be inevitable in so large a group, and to some extent it is indicative of the way everyone looks at other people, relatives or not. But it is unusual to have blood relatives, with whom one has shared so much pain and not a little joy, lack names and disappear behind repeated descriptive word strings.

     It is love, that most redemptive of all forces, that eventually brings Peppe out of her troubled early life and into what she clearly considers a more-than-happy adulthood. This sort of progress is what memoir writers inevitably strive for and what memoir readers inevitably seek in reading books such as Pigs Can’t Swim. Peppe’s differences from her siblings and resilience in the face of adversity are among her defining qualities, but they are certainly not unique distinctions – they are, in fact, basics of memoir creation (it is the different-and-resilient family members who grow up to write books). Peppe’s animal-rights message, which is actually presented somewhat heavy-handedly and with greater-than-necessary frequency, is clearly one important thing she brought with her from childhood. Her love of books is another. Her ability to love – animals, books, out-of-control siblings, even the parental recipients of that improbable dedication – is the most important element of all. If Pigs Can’t Swim is not foundationally very different from many other memoirs, it is very different in its specifics, in its portrayal of exactly where Peppe grew up and exactly where she has ended up. Readers who have endured their own difficult early lives and now find themselves at least moderately stable as adults will understand just where Peppe came from, even if they came from somewhere completely different.

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