On the Outskirts of Normal:
Forging a Family Against the Grain

by Debra Monroe

Southern Methodist University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-870-74560-7.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 02/12/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Debra Monroe's story is a compelling one, compellingly told. Early on she explains, "I have faith: the conversion of life into stories." She does it well. That's not surprising given that she is a prize-winning fiction writer and a professor of creative writing. In the pages of this book she tells many stories from her life.

The main theme is given in the title "forging a family against the grain." The family consists of Monroe and her daughter Marie. So what is exceptional about this? Monroe was an older, multiple-divorced, single woman who wanted to be a mother, who wanted to be an adoptive mom. Both because of her own predilection and the availability of babies for older, single women, the child who came to her was African American. Monroe declares that the moment she took Marie into her arms when she was a couple of days old, she knew they were and would forever be family. The rest of the world did not always view it that way, particularly in the tiny Texas town where they spent Marie's early years.

Monroe incorporates more stories from her life into the account: her rocky relationship, and sometime non-relationship, with her own mother, her struggles with her health, and her consistent bad luck with romance. It makes for fascinating reading. The book consists of chapters that are virtually free-standing essays. Each could be read alone with no loss of feeling or continuity, but I doubt many readers will do this. Because of its compelling narrative, it is much more of a one-sitting read.

Monroe has spent her career writing, but I had never encountered her work until I read a review she wrote for the Houston Chronicle. The book she wrote about sounded interesting, but I decided to read Monroe's own book because the review was so well written. I am now a Monroe fan and her books of fiction are high on my to-read list. This gal can really write.

Winner of many awards including the Flannery O'Conner Award for Fiction, Debra Monroe is the author of two collections of stories, The Source of Trouble and A Wild Cold State, and two novels, Newfangled and Shambles. She teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas and lives in Austin with her family. Learn more about her and her books on her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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