A book review of How to Catch a Frog: and other stories of family, love, dysfunction, survival and DIY by Heather Ross
I need to disclaim that Heather Ross is a dear friend of mine, and that is a fact I only wish had not been true while I was reading this book, so as to maintain- even just for her sake- as objective an opinion as I could of this truly illustrative memoir of her less than typical upbringing. But I will get back to that. A good review removes oneself, so here we go then.
This memoir of Heather's is shared from the perspective of a woman who has survived childhood- not a “normal” one if there is such a thing- but one where she and her sister manage to understand where they belong and what belongs to them for mere fleeting moments of their upbringing only to have the rules change on them again and again. In a broad stroke, Heather's style and her choice of vignettes keep you keenly interested on what happens next, have you watery-eyed both through laughter and through heartbreak, and have you as enthralled with the highly descriptive details of how she physically managed to survive her extreme, element-exposed childhood in rural Vermont as you are with her intensely lyrical and charming descriptions of the characters that populate this book- the characters that populate(d) her life.
The timeline of the memoir is one that jumps around a bit, but not in a really deliberate or highly methodical way that becomes overly scheduled so that you are expecting the four pages of present tense right after you've read the four pages of past tense. The hopping around is organic- much like how you would remember something about your own life, which would generate the more recent or much older circumstances that would naturally be called to mind. In other words, it is crafted just like a story that you are listening to as if you were sitting next to her.... where the conversation takes turns as necessary to paint a full portrait of a person and their path to here.
There are almost no instances in the book where Heather takes the opportunity to describe her struggles of upbringing in a way that asks you to pity her. She seemed to so quickly take what was not good in her life and make it something else, and admits readily when what she made instead was a good decision or perhaps one a bit misguided. It is the latter that truly reveals to her story-telling genius. Any family, even a less than exciting one, has it's share of stories and circumstances that makes them a book of sorts. It is specifically what Heather chooses to share about some family members and not share about others that gives rise to two figures who, in my mind, are heroines of her girlhood. Her Aunt Jane, despite her shortcomings and delusions, became one of those within this paragraph and perhaps within Heather's life:
I ran into the bathroom and sat on the side of the tub, trying to hold back tears, my stomach and my chest pounding and aching. Jane opened the door and quietly sat next to me, her hand on my back. At first she said what she always said, trying to get me to smile, but I was past the point of needing just a cheerful chin-up. What I needed, at that moment, was for someone, just once, to tell me that I was right, that even though I was a child, I was right, that this thing that felt so unfair was, indeed, unfair, that what was happening to me- the mother who was barely holding on, drinking more and more, dragging me along on her poorly planned adventures- wasn't O.K. And Jane, for the first and only time in my life did that. She pulled me up onto her lap and held me as tightly as she could and told me that she loved me, and then over and over again, her voice cracking, she said just one thing. "I know," she said. "I know, I know, I know"
I see the other, somewhat less described, heroine in her life- or maybe protectress is a better job description- as her twin sister, Christie. The very fact that she is a little less described I think exemplifies who sisters are, in fact. There is no need to go to a lot of trouble when describing them, because you yourself know them so very well, and everyone else should too, because they know you. Or in this case, because Heather is telling of herself, she is also telling you about Christie. One instance, much more comical than Jane's rise to heroism, where Christie shows herself as a truly motivated protector is this (and to preface, Heather's twin had just received a few oil paintings rolled into a tube and mailed that are of Heather who earned some extra money in Mexico sitting as a nude life model):
Upon opening them, she drove straight to the bank without even taking a minute to put on her shoes and deposited money into my account. I returned to California in the spring certain that it was possible to make a living as an artist but not having any idea how.
I can honestly say, even from the perspective of someone who has heard a few of these stories- and even some of the back-back-stories to these from my friend Heather personally, that I was sad when it was over. It is such an entertaining, and ultimately honest read. You will be overwhelmed with the fulfillment of watching a talented, seasoned artist allowing herself an honest look back at her life- which I know was a very hard thing to do. She has inspired me to jot a bit more down as memories soar over my head unannounced. Not in sad ways, not in ideal ways, just in ways and with words that reflect exactly what I can remember. I think she might inspire you to do the same. There are so many more vignettes, including saving a couple of lives, meeting her husband after a string of people who would not do this lady (or any lady) any service as a husband, having her daughter, sprinkled with related DIY that concrete this book as something that will stay with you for a long time. I ended so entirely glad that she is my friend and so happy for her that she managed not only to get through her life until this point, but that she got through the very, very good writing of it as well. We are lucky for that.
I love the book so much that I bought 3 dozen copies! But those are for the book signing that I am hosting for her at Craft South next week. If you are in the area, stop over and visit with Heather and get your book signed!