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Book review

Essays woven from personal, US, and geologic history

Courtesy of Counterpoint Press

A journey can be both physical and emotional, taking us through the landscape of memory as well as through the miles. That’s the premise behind “Trace,” a thoughtful collection of essays by Lauret Savoy, a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Playing on the definitions of “trace” as both a path and a remnant, Savoy discusses her journeys across the United States and the strands of personal history and national race relations that these travels reveal.

Savoy’s journey begins in childhood with the personal, reminiscing on her family’s move from California, which Lauret, 7, considered home, to return to her parents’ roots in Washington, D.C. Along the way, she also retraces her family’s life through visits as an adult to South Carolina, Arizona (where her mother served as an Army nurse during the last years of World War II), and the northern Wisconsin headwaters of the Mississippi. Self-described as “a woman of mixed heritage,” the author (who has previously written on cultural identity and earth sciences) uses these excursions as the spark for pieces on the complicated interactions between Native, European, and African-Americans, mixing in science, literature, and her own family history.

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These explorations work best when she sticks to simple questions. A chapter titled “What’s in a Name,” for example, begins with the adoption of various Native American place names and leads through poetry and history into a discussion of how language shapes (and is shaped by) changing views on race. The preponderance of racist place names, for example, even by Native Americans — and the labeling on maps of Native American lands as “unassigned” or “surplus” — reveal changing attitudes toward ownership.

Other essays work in Savoy’s studies in geology, using it both literally and as metaphor for the shifts and changes of thought, language, and national affiliation. In the process, Savoy raises more questions than she answers, but they are the kind of questions that provoke discussion. This is not a book to be read quickly. Rather, each of the eight essays deserves consideration on its own.

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Their complexity is partly a result of their density. In recounting these journeys, Savoy throws a lot of information at the reader. As recorded in the voluminous end notes, the author quotes primary documents often, using the language of centuries-old letters to make her points about prevailing opinions. When she then brings an essay back home — discussing her mother’s experience in the segregated Army, for example — it has added weight. These aren’t simply memoirs. The personal may be both the start and end point of an essay, but the body is clearly applicable to us as a nation

In a few places, however, even this extensive research feels oddly thin. In “Properties of Desire,” for example, the author describes a tour of the Walnut Grove plantation in South Carolina. The essay begins as the tour ends, with a visit to the plantation graveyard, with its “Sacred to the Memory of . . . ” headstones. These lead the author to question the guide’s cursory allusion to the unmarked graves of the plantation’s slaves. This, in turn, touches off an intriguing and in-depth discussion of the economy founded on slave labor and the collusion of even non-slave-holding states. However, the tour’s lack of information about the plantation’s slaves gets strangely short shrift. “Had we visited another day, had we walked with another guide, perhaps we could have heard of those who labored here in bondage,” she writes. Surely, a phone call if not a repeat visit would have answered that question — and perhaps provided fodder for the discussion of our national tendency toward revisionist history.

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Such objections are minor, quibbles in the face of an interesting and important work. “Trace” is not an easy read. Although her images are often poetic and her personal revelations can be striking, Savoy writes like a scholar, with long, dense sentences full of quotes and references. Those sentences require unpacking and rereading, in order to get their full import. That import, however, has implications that are as relevant today as they were in the geologic past, and the close read is worth the effort.

TRACE: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy

Counterpoint, 225 pp., $25


Clea Simon is the author of 19 novels. She can be reached at cleas@earthlink.net.