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Reviewed by:
  • Helen of Tus: Her Odyssey from Idaho to Iran
  • Margaret Cool Root
Helen of Tus: Her Odyssey from Idaho to Iran Laleh Bakhtiar and Bakhtiari Rose. Chicago: Institute of Traditional Psychology, 2002

On one level, this book chronicles the life of Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar (1905-1973). Born in rural Weiser, Idaho to stern, provincial, and xenophobic parents, this woman led an extraordinary life that took her ultimately [End Page 139] to her burial in Tūs, Iran, near the tomb of the great national epic poet Abol Ghassem Ferdowsi (d. c. 1020). On a second level, this is also a story about Helen's husband Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar (c. 1872–1971). As such, it glimpses through his life a century of dramatic shifts in Persia/Iran spanning the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. (A follow-up publication, Abol Ghassem of Tūs: The Epic Journey of Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, M.D., by Laleh Bakhtiar and Lailee Bakhtiar, enlarges the picture of Abol already forecast in Helen of Tūs). On a third level, Helen chronicles a large Iranian-American family, its crises of diaspora, its kaleidoscopic fragmentations and consolidations, created partly by world events and partly by personal histories. The complementary array of evocative photographs draws the outsider further into the Bakhtiars' private orbit.

While working as a nurse in New York City in 1927, Helen met and married Abol Bakhtiar, a Persian physician educated in the United States and almost thirty-five years her senior. Along with their first two children and with twins on the way, they moved to Tehran in 1931 and founded a clinic they operated out of their home. As the first American-trained nurse in Iran, Helen immersed herself in Persian language and culture while pursuing her nursing career and commitment to prenatal and neonatal health education with a tremendous sense of mission. Simultaneously she bore the remainder of her seven children in the space of eight years.

Then, through a series of extraordinary vicissitudes personal and geopolitical, Helen moved between Iran and the US for the rest of her life, although Abol never returned to the US. The children were shifted back and forth in different combinations, leading lives of complicated cultural and filial identity. Abol married a Bakhtiari wife in 1946, but he and Helen remained in constant (if sometimes painful) communication.

In the 1950s, Helen achieved a measure of independent professional distinction in the medical community, an important validation from the US of her expertise and the value of her cultural and linguistic fluency in rural Iran. She landed a post as chief public health nurse, educator, and administrator for the US government's postwar Point 4 program in Iran (see 107-8). Her efforts lodged her in the environs of the nomadic Bakhtiari confederacy, where she forged deep friendships and a true sense of belonging.

Helen of Tūs is a very particular kind of biographical memoir. The [End Page 140] authors are two of Helen's seven children (Laleh aka Mary Nell, the youngest) and Bakhtiari Rose (aka Shireen, the second-born). The eldest child, Lailee, provided extensive materials she had already gathered on their father's life, while the surviving son, Jamshid, contributes a sensitive introduction. In search of reconciliation with a fraught history, they weave their collective saga from letters, diary entries, recorded interviews with relatives, and documents preserved by family members.

The whole is presented prosimetrically, in a mix of prose and verse, to echo explicitly the Iranian oral tradition. This is an act of homage to Iran, and it works well, albeit with some difficulty. While the prosimetrum technique evokes for most of us the supremely heroic epic in the Iranian tradition, it turns out to be very apt for exploring the life of this particular woman. The shifts between documentation (primarily in Helen's own words, through her letters) and allusive interpretive lyric (composed by the authors) assist her children in communicating their fond admiration for her and in understanding her complicated, dark, introverted, and periodically depressive personality.

A slight criticism of the prosimetrum lies in its visual presentation. Segments of the correspondence that are the armature of the narrative element are connected...


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