Isn’t it interesting how we tend to read books in pairs? It always seems that I will read a great book, then unintentionally follow up with one very similar in subject or style. Recently, I’ve read two newly published essay collections that fit such a pattern.
Both “White Magic” by Elissa Washuta and “Blow Your House Down” by Gina Frangello are stories of women outrunning pasts marred by abuse, addiction, and bodies failing them, and running straight into walls of even greater difficulty than they could have imagined. For Washuta, she is drawn to the spirits and powers of her Native American ancestors to combat the PTSD of a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder and a violent and manipulative partner. However, doing so brings to light the dangerous exploitation of spiritual and occult practices as well as the personal and collective weight of colonization and heartbreak. In “Blow Your House Down”, the death of Frangello’s close friend kickstarts a spiral of self-destruction. She becomes caught up in a reckless and all-consuming affair while trying to maintain a stable life as a mother and academic, eventually leading to an epic implosion of her carefully constructed life. In addition to this upheaval and intense self-flagellation of shame, she is also diagnosed with breast cancer and faced with the arduous journey of cancer treatment.
Despite their cultural divergences, these two stories — and the women that tell them — bear significant similarities in theme and style. Both books are structured in sharply effective ways. Washuta’s is divided into three acts, each made of three essays that correspond thematically to three different tarot cards. Quotes from Alice Notley and Louise Erdrich are repeated in the epigraphs of each essay, and questions placed in the footnotes act as checkpoints for the reader, literally asking, “how does this make you feel?”. The essays in Frangello’s book are all built around the letter A, an overt reference to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”. The opening essay, “The Story of A”, reads like a dictionary for A-words that encompass the book’s themes, building a scaffold for the story to come out of words such as adulteress, atonement, and antiheroine.
Both “White Magic” and “Blow Your House Down” explore various types of pain, both physical and emotional, as well as individual and relational. Scenes depict this pain in arresting, visceral detail, including Frangello’s heart-wrenching divorce and the violence of Washuta’s abuse. Both women passionately try to strike a balance between the draw toward self-destruction and the chase for desire and happiness. Ultimately, Washuta and Frangello strive to clarify their identity by asking who we, as women, are in spite of our pasts, our pain, and our righteous anger.
“White Magic” by Elissa Washuta and “Blow Your House Down” by Gina Frangello are available for check-out at the Lewistown Library.