Haunted by History…

Author:  Eula Biss

Notes from No Man's Land Cover (200x300)Writing about race isn’t easy.  It’s loaded with the potential to offend, regardless of one’s intent.  But Eula Biss isn’t a writer who shies away from hazardous topics.  Occasionally describing her race as “mixed” – despite her two white biological parents – she refers to her black step-siblings and cousins, Cherokee aunt and step-fathers of various colors.  A veritable rainbow of race, which tends to poke holes into what the concept even means.  She touches on the topic frequently in Notes from No Man’s Land, a collection of thirteen essays. 

Catching my attention immediately with a surprisingly haunting history of the American telephone pole, she goes on to describe her misadventures as she travels the country trying to find a place where she feels at home.  From teaching grade school in Harlem, to writing for an African-American newspaper in San Diego, to teaching undergraduates at Iowa and Northwestern, Biss deftly combines memoir, history and commentary into some riveting stories.  Highlights include an essay about the once thriving, but now vanished town of Buxton, Iowa; an exploration of the public apology; and a wide-ranging discussion about a fertility clinic’s racially volatile mistake.

Shaft No. 10, Consolidation Coal Company, Buxton, Iowa in 1909.

Shaft No. 10, Consolidation Coal Company, Buxton, Iowa in 1909.


Biss writes in a relaxed and occasionally tangential style that I find eye-opening and effective.  She exudes a youthful honesty that in previous generations would have gotten her into hot water.  But beneath the almost naïve exterior, is a writer of impressive power.  I’m sure that there are readers who may take offense, but while she writes about potentially risky topics, she delivers her reflections without judgment or malice.

Winner of a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, Notes from No Man’s Land is a collection of thoughtful essays by a talented young writer who displays remarkable maturity and wisdom.  Strongly recommended for anyone who enjoys non-fiction delivered in a creative way. 

— D. Driftless

mine photo by Henry Hinds

Check out Dave’s review of another Biss work, On Immunity.

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