Book Review: My Swan Lake Life by Louise Blocker

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My Swan Lake Life: An Interactive Histoir: 80,000 B.C. – May 31, 1965 A.D.
Louise Blocker 
L&L Publishers, 2019 

♦♦♦♦
4 Stars

 

Nearly everyone has the compulsion to tell their story. While many of us tell stories, narrate our lives for our selves and others, only a few of us go a step farther and compose our story by actually writing it down. By doing so, we create a physical object out of our incorporeal memory, the received family lore, the local community explanations and history, and our very thoughts and feelings.

Yet this process, this documentation isn’t some vanity or merely self-serving exercise. Rather, it is the fundamental manner through which we transfer lived and learned experience to other generations. When we read the opening of Louise Blocker’s My Swan Lake Life where her grandson asks about slavery and what life was like for her as a child, we get a very personal but also public account of not just her life but of the lives lived to get to her.

In this way, Blocker combines history her with personal memoir to create what she calls histoir. My Swan Lake Life is a survey of African-American lives in the 20th century for the generations growing up in the 21st. It is a testament to the black lives that suffered and endured white America building the nation. My Swan Lake Life is also a celebration of all these lives that came before and will come after. In this way, Blocker’s histoir is one of the best memoirs of the year and a work of ordinary but vital history.

Blocker builds her memoir through research and non-academic language presenting readers with a compelling contextualization of the people who would ultimately lead to her life and by proxy her grandson’s. It is a unique and deft style of writing loaded with fascinating and moving examples of well-known and unknown figures from history as well as family members experiencing the particular cultural moment under scrutiny. Blocker makes her method clear in the very beginning of her book, “because many educational, social, and political conditions in our country during my childhood were a continuation of those existed in my ancestor’s time, it seemed fitting to combine their history with my coming-of-age.” This creates an unbroken line between Blocker and those in the past while at once gesturing towards her own grandchildren as the continuing spearhead.

As a woman who experienced segregated schools during Jim Crow, lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and graduated from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Blocker is hyper-conscious of not just having seen history but of having been an active participant in its creation as cultural History. Turning her attention to the ‘unsung’ individuals who existed and created the same kind of history but deeper in the American consciousness, she crafts a memoir at once a lesson and testament.

In this way, Blocker’s My Swan Lake Life is the fulfillment of the role of a traditional griot. The work not only names and articulates figures who are marginalized or may have never otherwise been remembered outside of their immediate family but also places readers in the moment to see how things we imagine as abstract were and are very real, immediate no matter era.

Blocker also cuts between her chapters what she calls ‘Accompaniments,’ muses on songs that carried her through different eras of her life and spark her memory of others. While it might seem like a small thing, it is a clever way to connect her tone, analysis, retelling, and rumination. I’ve collected some of the many songs she discusses here as a playlist:

My Swan Lake Life is a compelling and engaging memoir. It is also a vital work of historical nonfiction, one putting names and faces to moments throughout our shared cultural legacy. Blocker has created an indispensable and valuable resource not just for her grandson, but all of us.

 

 

About the Author

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The last born of eleven and the first to attend college, Louise spent her formative years on the plantation where she was born in Swan Lake, Mississippi, and her teens in Memphis, Tennessee.  She received her early education in a church that served as a one-room schoolhouse.  Taking advantage of the opportunities her widowed mother sought by moving to Memphis, Louise earned academic scholarships that enabled her to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana; after which, she began her career as a language arts and social studies teacher at Hardy Junior High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Migrating westward, first to Lawrence, Kansas, then to  Kansas City, Missouri, Louise settled in Santa Monica, California, where she founded, edited, and published CONTACT, the Blocker family’s quarterly newsletter. Now, an AstraZeneca retiree, making her debut as an author, she writes—mostly  nonfiction—when not gardening,  enjoying a movie or play,  engaged with her son and grandson, or challenged by Sudoku.

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