Review: June Melby’s memoir a warm, wise celebration of family, and a meditation on the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’
Thursday, July 03, 2014 9:58 AM
The other day I was reading aloud to a friend of mine from June Melby’s recently published memoir, “My Family and Other Hazards”; I had to keep stopping to wipe my eyes so I could see the print -- I was laughing so hard that I was crying.
“My Family and Other Hazards” will launch Tuesday, July 8, at 7 p.m., in the Courtyard and Cellar in downtown Decorah. The event, sponsored by Dragonfly Books, is free and open to the public.
I really, really like that in a book.
There are any number of places in this book to which I could be referring; the author did standup comedy for 15 years, and she basically grew up on a mini-golf course -- how would her memoir not be funny?
I will say just this: This particular passage involves a family reunion at the golf course. (“Just so you know, the big party will end in a fight. I’m getting ahead of things here, however, I will tip you off that the fight is about money. It is always about money. But, to be honest, like my family itself, it’s going to be a bit weird.” -- p. 159)
This takes place in chapter 10, entitled “The Outhouse,” named for hole 10 on the Tom Thumb mini golf course Melby’s family owned and operated for 30 years in Waupaca, Wis.
That’s how the book works -- each of its 18 chapters is named for the corresponding hole on the golf course, and for the “hazard” -- obstacle -- identified with that hole. After saying something, usually very funny, about the hole and its hazard, Melby widens her scope and uses the hazard as a metaphor.
She did this “mostly because it seemed fun,” she says. “Writing a book is a lot of work, and takes more hours than you can ever imagine. You’ve got to make it fun for yourself. I decided to have a theme for each chapter based on each of the 18 hazards because it just sounded really fun. One is about Time. Another is about Rules. Another about Dreams. Also, it gave me a way to step back from the story and reflect on Life—capital L --which is really the purpose of the book.”
If you’re like me, you’ll love the whole book -- but you’ll have favorite chapters, too. Mine might be Chapter 5, “The Horse,” because I was an American Studies student a long time ago and I love this kind of thing. The chapter actually reads like a kind of social history of mini-golf, and of the emergence (and disappearance) of the “roadside attractions” that used to dot byways and highways, before freeways, in this car-loving country.
The author’s own favorite chapter, she says, is Chapter 4 -- “The Colored Light Thing” (this is definitely my favorite chapter title).
Chapter 4 is named for hole 4 (“the site of gizmos and gadgets and mother-knows-whatsits and motors that purr, and motors that roar, and motors that explode with a Bang. -- p. 68). The chapter, Melby tells us, is about complexity.
And to a large extent, it’s also about her dad.
George Melby, a former Decorah High School teacher of chemistry and physics, died just five months before the book’s publication; but he’d had a chance to read much of it.
“I loved hearing my dad laugh as he read (Chapter 4),” Melby says. “That was probably one of the most rewarding moments for me, hearing my dad and mom laugh when they read the parts I wrote about them. I wanted to tell the truth, but be entertaining, and also convey these things in a respectful way, you know, so they won’t hate me.”
Melby says her dad was a little like the father in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” who made very interesting and overly complicated gizmos and gadgets out of any number of improbable things. In George’s case, for example, a spit motor for a barbeque grill, picked up for a buck at a garage sale, was “repurposed” as the motor that powered the paddlewheel boat hazard at hole 17 for the next decade and a half. Like that.
In fact, Melby says one of her dad’s dreams was to make things complicated.
“He was an idealist. He just wanted things to be as good as possible for people. He truly was driven to make sure people had a good time,” she says. “When he was teaching, he prepped every single night, all 30 years, even though he had taught the same material many times before. He was just conscientious. So at the mini golf, he really wanted families to have a good time together, and become closer together, having played a game at Tom Thumb. His way of achieving that was to keep improving things, and sometimes it just got complicated. For example, he got us about 15 different sizes and weights of putters, when most courses have just two or three. You just had to laugh about these things.”
And laugh we do, as readers invited into the fish-bowl world her family inhabited every summer (“It was like living in a home located in the middle of a city park,” she recalls. “I still remember how we’d duck down sometimes inside the house when we were changing into our swimsuits, so that people walking by the windows wouldn’t see us undressing”).
But with every laugh, Melby’s wise and warm and loving memoir delivers something else: something that will make us think, and smile, after we’ve dried our eyes and thought about our own lives and loves, in the way the best-told stories will tend to do.
At the heart of her book, Melby says, was her desire to ask a question about the “American Dream.”
“We were raised to wait on people and make them happy,” she says. “For my parents, the ‘American Dream’ involved creating this little utopia -- to have this place where families could spend time together,” she says. “My ‘American Dream’ was to run away from that, with great scorn ... to go off and ‘see what I could make of myself.’”
The book’s prologue and epilogue are both named after the same site at Tom Thumb mini-golf: the ticket booth -- the beginning and the end, the place from which you started, and to which you return.
After 15 years living and working as a comedian and actress in Hollywood, Melby returned to Decorah several years ago. Her parents had sold the golf course (read the book to find out how that went); and she discovered that, in fact, they might have been right all along.
“They’d achieved (the dream) just by being generous and not-self-serving,” she says.
“Whis is the better road to happiness: Pursuing your dreams, that is, going after happiness selfishly, like it’s your own personal goal? Or generosity, that is, finding your own happiness by helping others find theirs? It’s time for some experimenting.” -- p. 292).
She currently lives in a log cabin in the woods with her husband and a 20-pound cat named Ferdinand Magellan.
Melby’s book, “My Family and Other Hazards” (Henry Holt) will launch Tuesday, July 8, at 7 p.m., in the Courtyard and Cellar in downtown Decorah.
Hosted by Dragonfly Books, the event will include guest appearances by Decorah’s Charlie Langton and Keith Lesmeister, as well as refreshments. It is free and open to the public.
Melby says she learned a lot -- about herself, and about life with a capital L --during the process of writing this book.
“That’s what writing is about. I think most writers would tell you the same thing, that we write to understand,” she says. “Life is bewildering. You write so you can try to make sense of one small part of it. Then you move on. And get bewildered again. And then you write about that.”