To a woman who has spent several decades of her life in New Orleans, a city that lies mostly below sea level, any trip out is a journey to higher ground. And so Catharine Savage Brosman’s title works for a book of essays mostly about journeys away (though she includes a nice piece on New Orleans as well). These are travel essays as such essays should be: travel as distilled through the mind and memory of the author, more autobiographical than anything else. There is, in fact, relatively little here about the places she visits, and in any case, with a few exceptions such as Paris, these are places unlikely to be on any Condé Nast traveler’s destination wish list. Yet the essays are evocative of the places they concern all the same, as Brosman digs to find meaning for herself in these several parts of the country she loves.
Brosman is a recently retired professor of French at Tulane University; her academic side and love of her second language are both evident in this book. There is also humor here, as in her funny piece on the pretentiously antipretentious Sneaker Ball held in Aspen. Her most consistent theme, however, is her longing for those she loved who are now deceased, and her more easily requited love for those parts of the country where she has spent her life—places such as southwestern Colorado and West Texas, places that might not appeal to everyone, but mean the world to her. Brosman is well able to transmit that love to her reader.
This collection is full of fine ideas and beautiful passages. In “‘To Miss New Orleans’” (the title quotes a song), Brosman writes at first that she cannot really know what it is like to miss a city where she has lived productively for 35 years. But then she observes:
Popular wisdom has it that you never know how much you’ll miss something until it’s gone. . . . But sometimes . . . there is an absence at the heart of presence, death felt at the core of life, and nostalgia for what one has not yet lost. And the way one plays with death in sleep, I have played with separation, by spending long weeks and months away.
Brosman has a particular talent for ending her pieces. To quote one of her endings out of context would be to lose most of its meaning, as her final lines typically serve as a thematic summing up of the essay as a whole, often through an image. That she is a poet as well shows particularly here, in her gift for finishing essays so neatly and powerfully.
As in the passage quoted above, there is an unsentimental but strongly elegiac quality to much of Brosman’s work in this collection. Her deceased parents people this book, briefly but memorably—not so much for who they were (though we learn some of that) but for what they still mean to their daughter. Brosman spent a cold semester teaching in Sheffield, England, and as she lists her reasons for traveling across the sea from her comfortable home to live in some discomfort among strangers, she adds, at last, that knowing how much her father had longed to return to England himself, a place where he had felt happy and at home, she could not refuse an opportunity to go—if only for his sake. “What else can one do for the dead but live, and live well, if possible?”
This book is about places rather than persons because Brosman believes, as she argues in “Under the Lone Star,” that she is in tune with certain places much more than it is possible to be with most people. This is partly, she says, because places simply are, in a way humans are not; places are more open to our interpretation and not likely to correct us. She believes that we ought to be able to choose where we belong—to become a native of the place that best “enables” us. Her own experience, however, makes a different argument. If she belongs to New Orleans, she has lived there for three-and-a-half decades and more. If she loves Texas’ big sky because it offers “the widest arena for the widest thought”—a nice compliment to a state not universally credited with intellectual broadmindedness—the fact remains that she lived there as a girl, and her parents are buried there. We love the places where we have lived because we have beat our own heels so much into that particular ground. When our loved ones lie there as well, when among the West Texas dust is their dust, how can we not love a place that contains so much of our joy and grief that it is a part of us, as we are of it?
[Finding Higher Ground: A Life of Travels, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press) 216 pp., $21.95]