Gail Caldwell is a writer who IS a friend of Louise Erdrich, whose great new novel Shadow Tag, I recently reviewed (see previous posts). Gail is a writer’s writer. And she’s lived a writer’s life. She’s the former chief book critic for The Boston Globe where she wrote for more than 20 years. With a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism (2001), this is not her first memoir. A Strong West Wind is about her native Texas.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a memoir that covers less than a decade of her career and personal life. And it’s not so much about her as it is about her friend Caroline and their friendship based on the bonds of their canine companions. Caroline Knapp (the author of Drinking: A Love Story) became Gail Caldwell’s neighbor, dog walking buddy, friend, and shared their love of books. Knapp was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and dies.
“It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.” So Caldwell opens her real life story.
They met over their dogs. Gail learned to row and Caroline to swim because Gail swam and Caroline rowed. Two private, self-reliant writers came to be friends and this story is a memoir of true friendship.
“It’s taken years for me to understand that dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it. Edits, rewrites, the blur and epiphany of one-way dialogue,” (p. 123). Caldwell’s use of timing — the rhythms, beats and pacing of her prose — keep most of the narrative in the “showing” — the doing, the action. Yet when she “tells,” she has something to say.
The story she tells is how to let the heart break open. “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures. …We tell the story to get them back, to capture the traces of footfalls through the snow.” (p. 182)
[Random House, 2010]