It’s rare that a memoir is so emotionally engaging that a reader may wish to reach back through time and envelop the author in a warm parental hug. But that’s the impulse poet Tracy K. Smith engenders in this account of growing up as a dutiful daughter in a small town in northern California during the 1970s and ’80s. “My mother was proud of my decorum,” Smith recalls. “She liked having a little girl who instinctively wanted to obey.” Smith was much more than a compliant child, though. She was also preternaturally attuned to everything happening around her and determined to find a place for it in her rich imagination.
Smith was the youngest of five high-achieving children born to a former schoolteacher and an Air Force engineer. The fact that she is black does not immediately loom large on her mental horizon, but little by little, idle remarks from white friends and overheard family conversations knit themselves into a perspective that keeps her aware and on guard. By the third grade, she is recognized as intellectually gifted and put on a scholastic path that will lead her to Harvard and beyond. In high school, she is drawn to literature: “When my teacher and I talked about a poem or story,” she writes, “I felt its words rolling toward me in great waves that crashed, receded, then gathered force and returned.” She is also drawn to her lit teacher—and he to her—even though he is married and twice her age. For months, they engage in an intense but chaste love affair that leads to her first of several heartbreaks.
At Harvard, she revels in the “small freedoms” of being on her own, one of which is having her first sexual relationship. But always at the center of her life is her overwhelming love for her mother, who dies of cancer soon after Smith graduates. It is that sad event with which Smith begins and ends her compelling story.