An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer's Story
by Pamela Jane

Open Books Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1-941-79921-5.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 03/25/2016

Nonfiction: Memoir

In 1965, when I was eighteen, I ran away to Portland, Oregon. Running away was an act of rebellion, but also of faith. In one beautiful leap I would escape my family, my past, and the insufferable person I'd been living with for the past few years—my teenage self.

Thus I met Pamela Jane and after a mere few pages, knew I would read this book slowly to savor both the beautiful language and Jane's ability to keep moving forward as she came of age during the tumultuous 60s. The author described her memoir recently at as "a personal, psychological, and political adventure, a coming of age story about a young woman caught up in 60s radicalism who is trying to find her way back to the imaginative and lyrical world of childhood."

Jane was born in 1950 in Stamford CT, daughter of the scientist who discovered Polymyxin (now marketed as Neosporin) and a mother she perceived to act and look like a witch. Jane wished her parents would act more like June and Ward Cleaver in "Leave it to Beaver." They did not, though, and the young Pamela grew more invisible and dreamy as she created her own interior world, in the nature she found in her backyard and also in books. At age seven, her family moved to Berkeley, MI where her father began a position at the Detroit Institute of Cancer Research. When she looked back from her new home, she saw Stamford as a "magical place where stories whispered in the trees and shadows held the secrets of the past."

Jane began writing stories and poems as a child; she stored them in an empty cereal box and took them with her each time she moved. In her gauzy world, the one thing Jane knew for certain was that she wanted to be a writer.

As her family continued to disintegrate, Jane decided to escape, which is where we meet her on the book's opening page. She met David, with whom she became a radical comrade, in the 60s revolution. They married, Jane with dreams of living in a countrified setting in a nineteenth-century home with children delightedly romping outdoors and climbing trees. But Jane also experienced an inner dichotomy: while she was embracing feminine radicalism, she was also sewing long calico or silk dresses for herself, like those a Henry James heroine might wear. Meanwhile her husband sought to organize a revolution against the owners of the enormous Mohonk Mountain House estate in the Catskill Mountains, where they worked. Their journey through these multiple collision courses was entrancing.

Aside from the often breathtaking fabric of Jane's language, I enjoyed finding some bones of my own story in her memoir. I lived in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY for more than two decades and found the author's descriptions of the rural landscape stunning. For example, beneath a photo of the dramatic Shawangunk ridge, Jane notes: "The land unfolds like a bolt of green cloth where it flows over the fields and rises up to form the magnificent Shawangunk ridge." This is but one of the many examples I read and re-read in deep appreciation of her language. I also remembered how I had stitched my way through fabric projects as creative ways to express the yet-unknown person I was becoming.

Jane has woven a richly empowering memoir that I highly recommend for anyone who has ever struggled with identity and/or the direction in life she wished to travel. This is a fine, five-star read!

Pamela Jane is the author of over twenty-five children's books published by Houghton Mifflin, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, HarperCollins. Her book with co-author Deborah Guyol, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover's Romp Through Jane Austen Classic, was featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and BBC America. She is a writer and editor for and has also published several essays and short stories in varied publications. She is currently at work on a humorous travelogue about living abroad with her family in Florence, Italy. Visit her website.

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