The Memory Weaver is a work of historic fiction based on the life of Eliza Spalding Warren. In it, Eliza tells us of her life starting at age fourteen when she was first approached by Mr. Warren, as she continues to call him even after marriage. And while this is partly the story of their marriage, it is primarily the story of how past traumatic events affect Eliza as she struggles to deal with the difficult men in her life and the hardships found in the Oregon Territory of the mid to late 1800s.
“My earliest memory is of laughter inside a waterfall of words.” (p.17)
At age ten, Eliza had been held as a hostage in the aftermath of what is sometimes called the Whitman Massacre. Memories of events before, during and after the massacre are incorporated throughout the novel as are entries from her mother’s journal.
“My memories weave a complex web.” (p.87)
What emerges is a tale of a survivor filled with guilt, longing for normalcy and the guidance of her mother. We see how her memories affect her behavior and decisions, and the difficulties others have in dealing with someone suffering from what we would now term Post Traumatic Stress.
“It’s about time you put those memories to rest, Eliza. Life goes on.” (p. 182)
Jane Kirkpatrick’s Eliza has a strong voice in that, from the beginning of the book, I could hear her as I read. The prose can be a bit formal feeling, and reads a bit like narrative non-fiction at times, all of which lend an authenticity to both Eliza’s story and the journal of the mother, Eliza Warren. Along with the strong narrative voice, I enjoyed how aspects of the imagined journal entries were mirrored in Eliza’s own thinking and circumstances.
Another strong point is the sympathetic characterization of the Nimiipuu, in particular the converts that Eliza encounters again as an adult. At times there was a true sense of place, and at others there lacked adequate description to picture where the story was unfolding. This may be due to the first person narrative and the continual triggering of Eliza’s memories of the past. Most clearly described, in hindsight, are the locations of the Whitman and Spalding Missions and homes.
“What we remember is not always a true arrow. Memories fall short or range too far.” (p.306)
This is a gently paced novel, giving time for the explorations of memory and Eliza’s gradual journey toward coming to terms with her memories. It is a story of how memories can hold us back, how they can be altered by time and perception, and how they can also (as the author wrote when signing my copy) “nourish and transform.”
I approached reading this with a bit of trepidation. A friend had recommended it to me, unread, based solely on the author and premise. And while the premise did immediately capture my interest, instantly bringing up memories of visiting the site of the Whitman Mission, the author was an unknown. After reading the beginning of the book through NetGalley, my hesitancy was gone and I purchased a copy to continue reading during the author’s appearance at Powell’s Bookstore.
I greatly enjoyed The Memory Weaver [Revell, 2015] and found myself tearing up in the last two pages prior to the epilogue. I will definitely be reading more by Jane Kirkpatrick in the future. 5/5 stars and recommended for those who love history and historical fiction involving pioneers, survivors, strong women and hopeful endings.
This review refers to both a purchased paperback copy and a review ebook copy that was read courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. Page numbers given with quotations refer to the paperback copy.