- Footsteps: A European Album, 1955-1990
Susan Tiberghien's Footsteps: A European Album, 1955–1990 is a contemplative memoir rendered as a collage of prose, poetry, and photographs. The book's arc, an odyssey of sorts, spans 35 years in the marriage of an American-born woman to a Frenchman, a man for whom, at 21, she left her native culture. She subsequently marries him, and, while raising their six children, she follows him to France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland.
Tiberghien's memoir initially attracted me because, in many ways, it is about the life I yearn for. Since childhood I have pictured myself one day living on the land, in vibrant, interdependent, intergenerational community. And like Tiberghien, a marriage proposal has recently given me the option to do so. And yet. And yet is it worth leaving my own culture and community behind? Could I do so without also leaving much of what makes me, well . . . me?
And so, I lit out for Footsteps in search of insight and possible guidance from a woman who herself changed cultures in exchange for love and family (and granted, for her own curiosity about European culture) and did so with aplomb. Initially, I wondered how she reconciled giving up her own culture for that of her husband, how she felt about raising her six children in a culture different from her own, and whether she felt tension between the demands of her own growth and her roles as wife, mother, and keeper of the home.
I did not find the kind of dramatic revelations I'd hoped for. Yet Tiberghien's story enlightened and engaged me in surprising ways. What ultimately drew me to this narrative was the intimate, accessible, and occasionally lyrical manner in which the author approaches her evolving transformation. As is true to most women's real lives, these inner changes are quiet—made manifest via the particular ways Tiberghien chooses to render the details of her family's daily life. Take the following passage from the [End Page 111] chapter "La Bete Noir," which recounts the family's weekend trips to her husband's family chalet in the mountains at Samoens:
Then there was the carton of food. "It's much easier to arrive with everything ready," Pierre said. And of course it was no trouble to prepare and pack and take care of the [six] children while the father was busy tidying up his desk at the office downtown.
This is the most explicit the narrator ever gets about any difficulty with her roles as wife and mother. Even here she renders her thoughts with gently ironic understatement. She does not recount her inner turmoil, or make overt commentary about the roles of husband and wife in society. Nor does she overdramatize any particularly disturbing exchanges between herself and her husband. In fact, as the memoir develops, and the children grow into adulthood, Tiberghien embarks on her own personal journey. As a result, she distances herself somewhat from her husband, later referring to her partner not as "Pierre" or "my husband" but "the father," as if he were a character in a story. It is this subtle emotional distancing that allows the reader to realize that something important is at stake for this narrator. For example, we learn of a family game played each weekend at the chalet, "la Bete Noir," a reverse form of hide-and-seek. Here, Tiberghien artfully utilizes the evolution of the game as metaphor for her own coming to terms with the person she's become.
It seemed it was always the father who was the last one out, who stomped around the yard, ranting and raging alone in the darkest of nights. Then, of common accord, the rest of us, all snug together in our hiding place, would change the rules of the game. The father became la bete noir. And when he got very close to us, and still closer, so close that we could hear him breathing, we'd jump out from behind the bushes, from...