Pitch Uncertain
by Maisie Houghton

Tide Pool, 2011. ISBN 978-0-975-55576-7.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 05/30/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir

In retrospect I realize that reading the first few chapters of Maisie Houghton's memoir, Pitch Uncertain, was like watching dawn arrive when I hadn't realized it had been dark. As I began reading, I thought it was a nicely written book about a nice family that over a couple of generations had descended from Mt. Olympus almost to the plains. I got to know grandparents, great-grandparents and lineage, and learned about the family estates. I did pick up on the fact that all was not as it should be between her parents, but much was missing, like school, and playmates, toys or piano lessons—anything outside her tight-knit little nest...ho hum. Nice book.

But I kept reading. Something about it held my interest. It was nicely written, and Houghton did seem to have unusual powers of introspection and analysis often missing in memoir. Suddenly I realized this book had become gripping. The sun had peaked above the horizon and flooded the world she wrote about with dazzling sunshine and color, showing everything in clear relief. My interest soared, and I began reaching for sticky flags to mark passages I wanted to revisit.

Houghton wrote the book from her current point of view as she looked back over her childhood, and while the story loosely followed that chronology, each chapter was based on a theme. The story was liberally laced with perspective and reflection, creating a rich, multi-layered patina of seasoned wisdom. The more I read, the more I appreciated her frequent use of phrases like "Little did I know..." or "Something was missing in my growing up." This constantly reinforced my sense that she has digested her life and found it rich with meaning, that she found the experience of writing a deeply rewarding and transformative one.

By the second half of the book I realized that this was not so much a documentary of a child growing up in a fading family as an intense exploration of relationships and how they had affected her. She had to search back through the generations to find the origins of forces that shaped her life. Some had strong, deep roots, and until the roots were uncovered, they would keep sprouting anew. By capturing and freezing them on the page and exposing them to light, she forever laid them to rest.

My family background was nothing at all like hers, but I found myself wondering just how it had differed. What could I learn from her insights about her parents and family? The possibilities seem endless. I look forward to many hours with my journal exploring those differences. It's rare that I would even consider reading a book more than once. But this is a rare book. I want to go back again and read the whole thing with the full awareness of where it's going. I want to read the early chapters in full sunlight and look for nuances of relationship I missed the first time through.

The book ended with a surprising twist, leaving dozens of unanswered questions about what came next. She skipped over several decades in coming to her conclusions about her formative years, and I'll be at the head of the line to order a copy if she writes a sequel.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Maisie Houghton was born in New York City, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fifties and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1962. With her husband, she has lived in Corning, New York, for over forty years. Pitch Uncertain is her first book.

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