June 19, 2013
Amy Wilentz on Rachel Corrie
Posted on May 23, 2008
By Amy Wilentz
By all rights, “Let Me Stand Alone” should not be an easy book to read. Doom hangs over this collection of the journal writings of Rachel Corrie, who was a 23-year-old American peace activist when she was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza five years ago. And yet most of this book whizzes by in a series of delights: in descriptions of autumn football games in Washington state, and ice in the winter mornings, of war seen on television, of the wind, of Corrie’s grandparents’ house in Des Moines, the used-book store in Aitkin, Minn., her mother tending to her dying grandmother, her own face. And this is all before the age of 14. When she was 2 years old, she looked at Capitol Lake in Olympia, Wash., her hometown, and said (famously, in her family): “This is the wide world, and I’m coming to it.”
It turns out that Rachel Corrie was first of all a miraculous child; then, an amazing changeling of a girl; later, a difficult, challenging, brilliant teenager, and finally a demanding, charismatic young adult. Most important, she was a very able writer from a remarkably early age—about 10 years old, or 11—an immediate, sensory observer, a good thinker, a rebel eventually. Above all, she was always human, never caustic (though she could be casually cruel to her parents, like all adolescents), and almost painfully alive to the give and take within families, among friends, between lovers, between siblings. She would go on to carry this feeling of connectedness to its logical extreme, because among the many things she was, Rachel Corrie was above all a natural extremist. She felt other people’s pain really and truly. As a grown-up, she feels connected not only to her parents, her sister, her unpredictable boyfriend and to others around her, but also to the mentally ill people with whom she worked in Olympia (“Don’t we all hear voices?” she asks her journal), and to the world. She also felt responsible for mankind’s lapses in humanity. That natural extremism and dedication to goodness took her into activism, and that’s how she ended up in Gaza—her shoulder blades, face, six ribs and spinal cord broken under the blade of that bulldozer.
But this book is not all about Rachel Corrie’s progression toward this terrible fate. It’s really three books in one. It’s a coming-of-age book about a certain kind of American girl, an upstanding, stalwart child of the Pacific Northwest, who loves freedom the way a pioneer child would, as part of the normal course of things. As a child, Corrie is like a Mark Twain character: You would not be surprised to see her in a thin dimity dress or in smocked gingham, with her blond hair in a braid, playing barefoot in the reeds near Huck’s river. As she gets older, she flirts with all the syndromes American girls now flirt with: drinking, smoking, anorexia. “Then she cursed herself for spending so much time thinking about herself,” she writes. But she survives; she’s an American survivor—and if you didn’t know beforehand the wrenching end of her story you would assume she could survive anything. The first half of the book reads like a best-selling Oprah-endorsed literary tell-all memoir (or anyway, almost all ... there is an editorial hand involved in culling the journals, and that hand belongs to the Corrie family), written by an exceptionally creative and gifted girl.
“Let Me Stand Alone” is also a writer’s notebook. One can easily imagine it being read in a workshop. It includes poetry, and a long (some might say too long) half-fiction, half-confessional love story; rapturous descriptions of nature, and loving details about Olympia (having read “Let Me Stand Alone,” I now vote Olympia, Wash., the No. 1 city to visit in the United States, although I haven’t been there). A love poem about driving on the highway with her mother and seeing a flock of herons is particularly accomplished; here’s a bit of it:
anonymous gray herons
Here’s another section, from the middle of the book, where Corrie imagines the salmon of Olympia: “There have been so many times over the last several years when I’ve wanted to be anywhere except Olympia. I think I’ll be gone within the next year. It’s hard to explain it. ... The salmon talked me into a lifestyle change. The salmon beneath downtown Olympia are church. Years ago a group of us doing salmon restoration work rode a bus down to the East Bay Marina and observed the hole in the bulkhead. Salmon swim into that hole. Salmon have to make it all the way up Plum Street in that hole. .... Once you know there are salmon down there it’s hard to forget. You imagine their moony eyes while you walk home from the bar in your slutty boots. You’re aware of them down there when you ride around in somebody’s car—fanning their gills. It’s hard to be extraordinarily vacuous when you always have the salmon in the back of your mind: in that pipe down there. ...”
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