“Georgia, Kansas, beach, and mountain; cabin, pond, tree house, prairie. I am a pilgrim following paths, I am a pilgrim always coming home.” House of Steps: Finding the Path Home
“Lovely. Blackmarr finishes her pieces with understatement rather than fanfare. That keeps the electricity humming. And when she reaches for some universal truth, she does it with a dart throw.”
“Blackmarr gives us the kinds of twists and turns we might otherwise expect to find in a mystery, and also passages that will make the most stone-faced reader laugh out loud.” –Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
“One of Blackmarr’s most endearing traits is a sense of her own contradictions. [She] is a natural at spotting humor in the mundane battles of life.” –Kansas City Star
“A pleasure to read.” –Washington Post
“Elegant . . . the graceful pieces are imbued with a sense of calm and delight in nature.”
Ingenious . . . Blackmarr’s personal insights represent universal themes that most of us ponder every day.” -Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a writer with “a self-deprecating wit and an uncommon grace,” Amy Blackmarr became a familiar public radio voice when she left her paralegal business in Kansas to move into her grandfather’s fishing shack beside a South-Georgia pond and turned to writing full-time. Her collections of personal essays — Going to Ground, House of Steps, and Above the Fall Line — relate wrenching tales of her experiences with the natural world while living in rustic hide-outs tucked far back in the woods. Her tales of ghostly experiences in Dahlonega, Georgia, Dahlonega Haunts, has also become a favorite. She wrote the book “on a lark,” she says, while leading a psychic around local haunted buildings in the old gold-mining town. “The psychic talked to the ghosts, and I wrote down what he said they said,” she says, laughing.
A Pilgrim Progresses
Amy Blackmarr’s Essays About Her Latest Stay In The Midwest
August 22, 1999|By Chris Petrakos. Chris Petrakos reviews regularly for the Tribune.
HOUSE OF STEPS: Finding the Path Home By Amy Blackmarr
Viking, 192 pages, $22.95
In Amy Blackmarr’s first book of essays and observations, the well-received “Going to Ground,” the author wrote with emotional precision of her return to her native Georgia from the spare plains of Kansas. Blackmarr, who settled into her family’s old fishing cabin, had given up a successful paralegal business and moved home to be closer to her grandmother. That debut volume combined a Thoreau-like manner of description with a lyricism that was refreshing and compelling.
In her new book, “House of Steps,” Blackmarr returns to the Midwest, where she has been offered a doctoral fellowship at the University of Kansas. Leaving behind her beloved family, as well as “a bad Southern Gothic novel . . . and a collection of purple meditations that now make me blush with embarrassment” she takes up residence 15 miles outside of McLouth, Kan.
Given Blackmarr’s iconoclastic temperament, it seems fitting that she winds up in a funky house built by a former hippie, the house of steps of the book’s title, resembling an “M.C. Escher graphic that actually exists in all three dimensions and encloses a whirlwind of drafts.” The house is entertainingly described (one room has six or eight walls, depending on how Blackmarr counts), and she eventually settles in with her dog and books and begins to readjust to life on the plains.
Like Thoreau, Blackmarr comes across as most comfortable living a solitary existence. Family and several ex-husbands are mentioned in passing, but for the most part, Blackmarr is content with being absorbed into the slow rhythms of surrounding nature. She is even a bit of a crank, calling the police when some loud teenagers frighten her by wandering too close to her house and exhibiting what to most readers would be typical and harmless adolescent high-spiritedness.
Blackmarr is at her best when she writes about exploring the natural world that surrounds her homestead, taking in stray dogs and carrying on a never-ending battle with spiders and wasps that plague her rooms. The essays are short–some no longer than a page or two–and all have a light, meditative quality to them, as if the author’s bonds to the earth are being slowly broken and she is rising up into the air, observing all that is around her.
But the life of solitude is not always an easy one, as is made clear in one of the more-humorous essays, “Hawk,” in which Blackmarr, bored by the monotony of her days, decides to sit in her front yard and fast until she receives a vision:
“Instantly I was miserable. I was hot and thirsty and all I could think about was air-conditioning, Mexican food, and the work I wasn’t doing. . . .
“I struggled to keep from dozing. My bangs were plastered to my forehead, and all over me were bugs–flying bugs, creeping bugs, zinging bugs, biting bugs. . . .
“I thought: Life’s too short to be this uncomfortable. Whatever is wrong with me, I’ll get over it.
“After an hour, I went back in the house, turned on the TV, and ate the Girl Scout cookies I’d been saving in the freezer.”
This willingness to confront and poke fun at her own impatience and weirdness is part of what makes “House of Steps” an engaging collection, despite its sometimes-thin content. And Blackmarr ends it on just the right note, offering readers a small, Zen-like epiphany in which she reflects on her travels through the world:
“Georgia, Kansas, beach, and mountain; cabin, pond, tree house, prairie. I am a pilgrim following paths, I am a pilgrim always coming home.”