Matremoir Tweet Summary #3: Who Killed Mom by Steve Burgess

In my last blog I referred to Who Killed Mom? as “ a humorous yet tender and wise delight of a book.” To write about a parent with humour is a rare and difficult thing. Clarence Day’s famous and wildly popular patremoir sketches in Life With Father are the only other successful example I know of; and, of the two books, I much prefer Steve Burgess’. Day achieved his humour by mocking the stereotypical elements of his father, while Burgess uses playful hyperbole and gently self-deprecating humour to breathe affectionate life into this portrait of his mother. Burgess’ book is infused with a prairie sensibility, an awareness of the difficulties of life, a tolerance for the flaws and failings of others, and an admiration for the grit and toughness required to live an ordinary life in heroic fashion. There is a strong Peter Gzowski, Garrison Keillor quality to this book, a quality of simple stories well told and treasured.

Who Killed Mom?
is not at all a string of folksy vignettes. It is a carefully structured book which contains within it a thoughtful social history, and students of feminist history can learn a lot by parsing the pressures and compromises Joan Burgess faced and made for her family. There is also a strong philosophical flavour, lightly, deftly conveyed. Steve’s musings in the Protestant Cemetary where Keats and Shelley are buried, and his thoughts on Philip Larkin, take us a lot farther than many an existential treatise. Too bad Joan Burgess is no longer alive to appreciate what her son has done for her. While “[g]randiosity would have made her spin in [her] grave like a jet turbine,” Who Killed Mom? would have made her sing with praise like an angel. That may sound maudlin, yet there is nothing maudlin about Steve’s book. Above all else, it is a clear, simple expression of heartfelt love.

A further thought on the subject of matremoirs. I’ve already commented how books like Who Killed Mom? are now starting to appear with more regularity,and are providing proof that matremoirs are starting to attract the same writerly attention that patremoirs have received. Also noticeable is that Canadian writers are embracing the genre. To Clark Blaise’s, Dan Hill’s, Joe Fiorito’s J. J. Lee’s, and Miriam Toews’ strong father books–along with Sandra Martin’s anthology of father essays by notable Canadian women–we can add Sarah Leavitt’s and Steve Burgess’ outstanding mother books.

Who Killed Mom? tweets:

My mother’s grim determination in the face of increasing paralysis has been further proof of something her children already knew–her character is of steel.

March 18

My mother was raised by a woman with a mind like a windowless room, a woman apparently incapable of empathy or self-analysis.

March 16

Mom was a little more Shirley MacLaine, if Shirley had spent eleven hours a day chasing a gang of hyperactive juveniles in between bouts of scullery work.

March 15

The story of my mother’s life is largely the story of her relationship with her own mother.

March 14

Kids don’t think about a mother’s insecurities, and it is a mark of Mom’s success that we were so blissfully ignorant.

March 13

How did our mother, with her grace, her discretion, spring from a woman with the grace of a tuba and the sensitivity of a stuffed sturgeon?

March 12

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for a lovely review Andre–very high praise and greatly appreciated.

    But the book would have been even better if I had included some stories about Fritz, the mighty miniature dachshund. His exclusion was an outrage and a travesty, as any Burgess will tell you.

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