- Alpine Heart
athens: university of georgia press, 2017. 208 pages, cloth, $24.95.
In the popular imagination, Switzerland is a land of cheese and chocolate, the place where Heidi runs to the mountains to tend her grandfather’s goats. Yet in Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir, Sarah Gorham reaches deeper than these true-enough tropes, sharing what it meant as a teenager to attend an alpine boarding school focused in equal measure on discipline and ex cellence.
Sarah Gorham has previously published four collections of poetry and one essay collection, Study in Perfect, which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is also the cofounder and editor in chief of Sarabande Books. Now, in Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir, Gorham focuses on two years she spent as a teenager at a Swiss boarding school in the Bernese Oberland. She explores, through 19 beautifully written and mainly short pieces, how the teachers at Ecole d’Humanité and the country of Switzerland not only saved her from bullies at her American high school and her own teenage rebellions but also formed sensibilities that have lasted a lifetime.
One of those sensibilities is a love of the German language. Even as a teenager, Gorham possessed a poet’s auditory attention and facility; she picked up the language easily, almost greedily, soon helping other international boarders to adjust. In “The Not-So-Awful (Swiss) German Language,” the sixth [End Page 197] essay, readers will recognize that Gorham responds, in part, to Mark Twain’s famous essay “The Awful German Language.” Gorham writes:
The experts might say it’s better to master one tongue at a time. Forget modern dance till you’ve mastered ballet. Don’t improvise till you can read music. But when you’re tugged in two directions, as any adolescent is—Am I child or adult? Follower or leader? Bad girl or good?—the choice is not so simple. The miracle of Swiss versus High German is that you can have it both ways. You can flip from one kind of person to another.
This early ability to master multiple languages has likely assisted Gorham’s ability to navigate multiple literary forms, perhaps even helping her to understand at a young age that one might write essays employing various personas. Her language skills seem also to have helped her understand cultural literacy and navigate different communities upon her return to the United States as a young adult. I’d suggest, too, that it certainly seems to have assisted her with letting go of the bullying she experienced in North America.
I’ve lived in Switzerland since 2009, and I’ve always thought this country would be a difficult place to be a teenager. As an adult, I find the pressure to behave properly sometimes overwhelming (though it’s often not at all clear what behaving properly requires); as a bullheaded teenager, I would have found this kind of communal expectation to tow invisible lines downright oppressive. It’s common for people to correct each other in public; now that I’m more used to it, I find it amusing. My Italian-born husband and I used to count the number of Swiss frowns we received in one day. After following my husband to his post-doc, we lived at first in the first-floor apartment of an elderly Swiss Italian woman who lived upstairs, and she delivered long lectures about how I should have my husband’s dinner ready for him after his day of work. (That I was teaching four to six online courses per semester from home—and didn’t like to be interrupted—never made sense to her.) I’ve been corrected many times in public: for eating food out of Tupperware on a train, for letting my miniature dachshund pee on the wrong grass and for keeping her on leash in the mountains, and for wearing sweats to the grocery store. I’ve even had a bus driver yell at me for using change to pay for the bus instead of a bill, though perhaps that could happen anywhere.
Gorham seems to...