Memorial Day is a day for remembering and I spent this day remembering place as well as people. To help in this regard I had a copy Kristen Embry Lichtman’s memoir, Secrets! of a Los Alamos Kid, 1946-1953. I enjoyed this book on two levels. First, it was a vivid trip down memory lane. I also grew up in Los Alamos, and in my later years there I shared many adventures with members of the Embry family. For me, that combination of place and people formed the heart of the book.
Beyond that close connection, I appreciated the craft Kris used in creating the book. It’s a fine example of the scrapbook style of story organization I mentioned in the last post. The book is comprised of twenty chapters of varying lengths. Each chapter covers a designated period of time, be that a single day or several months, and each has a theme. Of the twenty, only six feature a single story. The others group several related incidents of anywhere from a single paragraph to a couple of pages to broaden the coverage of the theme.
Her liberal use of dialog, choice of present tense, and liberal use of photographs make the story sizzle with life, and her gently humorous accounts of her own silent fretting that resulted from typical childish misunderstandings lend a strong aura of credibility to the tales. She matter-of-factly tells of shenanigans like scooting out the door when her mother was distracted, and jumping off the top bunk with the older two sisters when their parents were both away in the evening. Kris’s cozy, informal writing style makes the book read like a letter to a cherished friend or relative and furthers the impression that this is a book one can take at face value without considering the role of literary device or artifice.
Her choice of content was judicious. Although she limited the book to her grade school years, she surely could have filled several times the 110 pages with stories from that time frame. The ones she did include are tightly focused on her purpose of showing various aspects of life in Los Alamos as a young girl. Readers become acquainted with her family, but always in the context of living in that specific community. For example, the tale of flushing extra toilet paper produced a reminder of the power of Zia, a mysterious force unknown to the outside world. The book is about the chance for young children to roam freely in the canyons, and the abundance of neighboring kids to play with. It’s about the lifelong love for the mountains and pine forests that she (probably most of us) developed growing up in Los Alamos. And above all, it’s about the role secrets played in our lives there.
Kristin’s story was published by the Los Alamos Historical Society, and that fact shows that our stories can have value beyond our families. Any of the thousands of kids who grew up as Hilltoppers will find a treasure trove of memories between those covers, perhaps story ideas of our own, and the views of the children growing up there at a crucial juncture in history are of historical interest. Beyond that, I recommend the book to any lifestory writer as an example of a completed collection of stories written and organized in an effective, down-to-earth way.
To date, I know of only one other Los Alamos offspring who has written publicly about the experience of growing up there. I’m inspired to join their ranks, and I hope many others will do likewise. How about you? Could you produce a collection of stories about the place(s) where you grew up? Make sure your Historical Society and/or public library have copies. Publish it on Lulu.com so others can easily obtain them. Who knows how many lives you can brighten, as Kristen has brightened mine?
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal
Countdown: 34 days until the release of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing on July 1. Stay tuned for ordering details.