Kathleen Alcalá

The Clueless Eater


October 19, 2017

Tags: book review, trace, Lauret Savoy, history, race, landscape, geology, hidden histories

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy
Counterpoint, 2015

This book was recommended to me by Donna Miscolta when it first came out. I was too busy at the time to read it, but I just finished it a few days ago and have to share my joy.

Savoy, an environmental sciences and geology professor at Mount Holyoke College, travels the land with the keen eye of a scientist and the sensitive heart of a memoirist. Each place she pauses, she leads us in catching our breath and examining the land for its ancient presence, “grounding” us in the landscape before turning to her personal connections, or disconnections, to the land. Like me, she was born in California to parents from elsewhere, and her yearning for that landscape is as unfulfilled as mine. Our families were never quite settled, and the notion that somewhere else would probably be better haunts our childhood memories. Yet every time I sit down to write, I find myself describing some aspect of that land and place before moving on to the story at hand.

In addition, the ethnic and racial ambiguities of conquered or enslaved people means that we both carry parts of our stories on our skin, to varying reactions. We each have one light-skinned parent, and I, too, remember the “that’s your daughter?” in places of segregation and red-lining, places where you could hear a friend in the next room lying to his father about your origins. That’s when I learned that Italian was more acceptable than Mexican in California.

“… to live in this country is to be marked by its still unfolding history,” Lauret writes.

Only decades later did I discover that a great-aunt had taken on that very disguise to make her way through the world. Upon her death, her children discovered her correspondence with my father, having kept our branch of the family a secret from her branch.

On her journey, Lauret meets some of her cousins, but many of them are already in the graveyard. I especially appreciate the last two chapters – “Migrating in a Bordered Land,” reconstructing her mother’s time as a surgical nurse in a segregated Army, while stationed at Fort Huachuca; and “Placing Washington D.C. After the Election” – as chapters that recall my own blood links and early adventures into a larger world.

As someone with a very visual memory, maps would have helped me place these landscapes in my mind’s eye.

“Lauret Savoy,” says bookseller Rick Simonson in his blurb, “has given us an invaluable work of better knowing our past, seeing our present, imagining our future.”


With Cowichan Elder Hyamiciate, Della (Rice) Sylvester at the The Living Breath of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ Indigenous Foods and Ecological Knowledge Symposium


Selected Works

Creative nonfiction, memoir, environmental sustainability.
Combining memoir, historical records, and a blueprint for sustainability, The Deepest Roots shows us how an island population can mature into responsible food stewards and reminds us that innovation, adaptation, diversity, and common sense will help us make wise decisions about our future. And along the way, we learn how food is intertwined with our present but offers a path to a better understanding of the future.
Creative Nonfiction
Essays on Family and Writing

The Desert Remembers My Name makes an important contribution to discussions of ethnicity, identity, and the literature of place.”
Bloomsbury Review
"...a mesmerizing tale... the author explores the fascinating confusions and contradictions plaguing a culture precariously poised between tradition and modernization."
"She never forgot the power of storytelling as testimony."
The Utne Reader
"Kathleen Alcalá's Spirits of the Ordinary is an enthralling book..."
–Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Books

"This book entered my dreams."
–Alberto Rios
Short Fiction
"Thoroughly satisfying."
The New York Times Book Review

"By turns touching, entertaining, and surprising, and uniquely her own."
Publishers Weekly

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