- Nobody Rich or Famous: A Family Memoir by Richard Shelton
Richard Shelton's Nobody Rich or Famous is a nuanced memoir of his family covering more than one hundred years in places from Kansas to California but centered on their generations-long link to Boise, Idaho. The foundation of the book is a collection of "diaries" kept by his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in ledgers, notebooks, and on loose-leaf pages. And while the entries are often terse, they read like rustic poetry. In his grandmother Charlotte's diary from 1943, she writes: "Got lumber for chicken house. Starting building. Wind blew it down" (155). The entry is representative in tone and content with much of the journals. The reader experiences life on the Plains of Shelton's Depression-era youth in these miniature studies.
Shelton tells a variety of tales from the family lore. As they must be decades old, stories are sometimes fuzzy, but he uses [End Page 233] them to paint a sprawling portrait of a family that fits the book's title. These were not great people, but survivors, people who faced challenges from alcohol, poverty, and hard times, yet persevered. In the prologue, Shelton talks about the family history like a long-running play:
I am the last living member of that cast, chasing the ghosts of our earlier performances and finding that even most of the third-rate houses we performed in have been torn down long ago. We worked hard and our successes were few and temporary, but we never played tragedies. We were good for sentimental comedies, pathos, and melodrama. Above all, we bounced back.(3)
Any memoir is a journey, of course, and Shelton's includes trips to dusty libraries, down dirt roads, and into his own admittedly selective memory. And Nobody Rich or Famous often returns to the book's research itself. Traveling old roads he remembers from his youth, Shelton finds that much has changed. Schools are now parking lots. Houses are different—streets, even towns. Just as he hits genealogical dead ends, he hits real-world dead ends, finding himself scaling fences and walking through fields to see if a ranch or a house is as he remembers it.
The American West that Shelton finds during his research is not the one of his youth—the sprawl and modernization doing its best to hide the stories he seeks:
I cross Chinden Boulevard as quickly as I can. I should hit the Strawberry Glen Road any minute. Whoa! I'm on Highway 44 already, and it's a wide major artery heading due north. The Highway 44 I knew ran east and west on the other side of the river. What happened to the beautiful Strawberry Glen Road that meandered through cottonwood and willow bosques along the river? Gone.(109)
Despite the foundation the diaries bring, they never hold Shelton's attention for long. Their authors remain inscrutable: his great-grandmother, Josie, a Kansas farmwife; the resilient and beautiful Charlotte, his grandmother; his flawed and battered mother, Hazel. [End Page 234]
The richest part of the book is the detailed examination of Shelton's relationship with his father, Red, the alcoholic bootlegger and house painter. Red dragged his family from state to state, house to house, each home filled with the threat of violence and menace, each painted lovingly by him as a contrast. Shelton's fears of and devotion to his father are told unflinchingly throughout the book, up to and including his role as his father's caretaker at the end. To call the relationship conflicted doesn't begin to convey its impact. In the last days of Red's life, Shelton takes his grandmother on a drive for milkshakes and she tells him, "He wasn't always the way you remember him as a child. When he was younger, he was different. I don't know how to describe it. He was a good man who made a lot of bad decisions" (279).
The book is a difficult...