Into this maudlin era of tell-all autobiography about adultery, incest and ill-fated love comes Bobbie Ann Mason's "Clear Springs," a memoir that heartily resurrects a family type long gone from nonfiction: one with roots. Mason's parents and paternal grandparents -- who lived in the same house for many years, just one of the problematic realities that save her tale from turning into the idyll it might have been under the eye of a less honest writer -- were farmers in Kentucky, and she spent her childhood watching them struggle with the contingencies of weather and crop failure. Even as a girl, Mason saw far beyond the limits of the cornfields and berry bushes that surrounded her, and she was encouraged in her worldly ways by a mother who believed in her abilities and wanted to save her from continuing the family tradition of working too hard just to survive.
Christy Mason, largely deprived of opportunity yet ever aware of its power, instilled a strong-willed independence in her child from the very start. Consider the anecdote about little Bobbie Ann's first-grade pageant. Assigned the role of a daffodil, she prevailed upon her mother to sew her a costume:
"This won't do," she said doubtfully when she spread the length of crinkly crepe paper next to me. "Yellow's not your color."
Mama drove to school and informed Miss Christella that yellow was not my color. Blue was my color, because of my eyes ... "She has to be a bluebell," Mama said firmly. "Bobbie's not a March flower."
Mama exchanged the yellow crepe paper for blue and I became a bluebell.
For in the end, although this is certainly a story about family, it is more a story about women and social evolution. As modernity tore through the Kentucky countryside in the '50s, leaving the teenage Mason with an insatiable appetite for store-bought food and drive-in movies, women of her grandmother's generation refused to participate, while those of her mother's generation took what they could get but knew that ultimately progress would change their children's lives, not their own.
Luckily, however, for readers of Mason's work, which draws lyrically on her Kentucky upbringing, the pull of family and homeland can be difficult to elude, even when one strikes out for the city intending to do precisely that. In Mason's case, the city was New York, where she wrote for a TV fan magazine and lived in a seedy hotel in Times Square when she moved there in 1962. She went because, as she puts it, "It merely seemed inevitable. New York had burned its authority into my brain long ago."
But she lasted only a year before moving upstate, her first stop on the way back home to Kentucky, and during that short time it became clear where her heart lay. Not many young women living in a supposedly thrilling metropolis and destined for literary success would be able to recognize the sum of their youthful experience with the wisdom and simplicity of Bobbie Ann Mason: "I was walking up Sixth Avenue in midtown among lighted skyscrapers, just about dark. It was milking time, I thought."