Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refuge and Leap, grapples with tough issues in her new book, When Women Were Birds, confronting personal and perplexing questions about family, sexuality, abortion, love, marriage, environment, education, politics, religion, loss, and more—fifty-four in fact, as the subtitle suggests.
The hardcover version is too beautiful for the shelf. Its white dust-cover, embossed with a flock of birds in flight, calls out for touch. Upon opening, the book displays a black and white feather pattern—natural in its asymmetry. A bookplate atop the feathers states, “THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO.” A signature line invites the reader to declare ownership of the “journal.” When the pages are flipped quickly through fingers and thumb, a tiny animation of a flying bird appears. The size and weight of the book give it the feel of a personal journal: a private possession.
The book is born of Williams’s mother’s parting gift. Her mother declares, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you will not look at them until after I am gone” (1). They contain a shocking surprise. Each and every one—shelf upon shelf—is blank. Williams attempts to understand her mother’s mysterious gift of silence and emptiness and understand her own voice as a modern woman emerging from a strict conservative heritage in a politically conservative state—the voice of an active feminist, informed by science, and in love with the landscape of her home. With the wisdom of a fifty-four-year-old woman—the age of her mother when she died of cancer—Williams addresses life’s complexity with a poetic and spiritual voice.
The reader follows Williams to the secret places of her mind. She honestly displays life with its difficulty and complexity. Growing up as a Utah Mormon, confined by prescribed behavioral rules, she’s like a chick pecking her way out of the egg, breaking free yet maintaining respect for the essentials of her heritage—the nest that nurtured her. Unafraid to show her struggles with day-to-day realities, she describes her one-night stay in jail for speeding with a suspended license. She speaks freely of her inability to control the obscene language invading [End Page 478] her mind during the most sacred church service. She shows her ambivalence toward the political system and ecopolitics. Williams poignantly shares her struggle to accept her mother’s cancer and her own frightening medical diagnosis.
Through her own fifty-four variations on voice, Williams transforms her mother’s silence into a cacophony of birdsong: a call for women to raise their voices as birds, declaring the change of seasons and celebrating new beginnings. The book occupies a feminine space but will be enjoyed by men and women alike for its depth and insight. Anyone interested in the landscape and culture of Utah, what it means to be a Utah woman, and environmental and cultural debates of the West will be urged to think about profound and difficult issues and yet derive pleasure and meaning from this unusual book.