This winter during a typical dark and snowy January, I received an email from De Capo Press asking if I’d review a new memoir up for publication. Memoirs are my favorite genre, and I’m always eager to read a well-written one. Bonus points if it’s set in Maine.
This one did not disappoint.
In Pigs Can’t Swim, Helen Peppe takes an honest look back at her hardscrabble survival story of growing up in poor, rural Maine, as the youngest of nine children.
I think I love memoirs because they prove that few are spared the insanity that goes hand in hand with distracted parents, sibling issues, generational baggage, and extended family drama. But Helen Peppe’s story dives into the deep end of the pool and paints with startling clarity, a picture of a family steeped in anxiety and emotional pain, yet gutting through life with teeth-grinding endurance.
The youngest of nine, I often watched my siblings as they received their lessons. Never sorry for anything but getting caught, they tensed their muscles, tucked their chins to their chests, and hunched their shoulders as they endured, much like apes in a tropical downpour. From my spot on the perimeter of the family in the days when I was still cute and innocent, I wondered about “need” and “knowing better” each time my parents shouted things like “there’s no need of that” and “you know better.” P.2
Misery, boredom, and ignorance reign. Young Helen is neglected and terrorized on a regular basis. Her parents work frenetically from dawn till dusk, rarely listening to their children but always suspecting them of some perceived slight. Intimidated by older siblings for her looks, her questions, her role at the bottom of the family, and even her very presence, worry becomes Helen’s “normal.”
I gambled worry every day. Cigarette butts, like used condoms, I would learn a few years later, had a way of coming back when you least expected them. Never flush anything down a toilet that is on a septic tank or is the sole toilet for a dozen people. P.72
Helen’s story slogs through summer chores, bullies on the school bus, Stephen King novels, and a persistent longing for escape. Gum-popping and be-bopping escapades ensue when her parents leave the house and the older siblings are in charge. Favorite animals in the barn are served up for supper, and the rest of the family is irritated and baffled by Helen’s early abhorrence of meat. Occasional family vacations to the lake offer fleeting moments of joy when her mother seems engaged and almost happy.
Both charming and disturbing are the names Helen gives her siblings. They are dubbed with titles such as the blustery-and-favored brother, the sister-who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God, the tough-yet-admirable sister, and the hair-twirling-pretty sister. Chilling is the seldom mentioned but always frightening bullshit-artist-ass-Skipper, a family hanger-on that’s not ever completely explained, but always avoided.
Portrayals of her beleaguered parents are somehow sympathetic, though her raw candor about their ignorance is obvious. They care for her and show glimpses of affection for her, but their bitter version of practicality trumps all. Written from the perspective of her young self throughout, Helen calls out the absurd and maniacal with grown-up insight and wit.
There were infinite “have-tos” especially when you needed a parent’s time. My mother might say, “I can’t bother with you right now. I have to get supper started,” or “I have to mow,” or “I have to help your father.” I felt fury when my parents shouted and complained over what I thought was nothing but they thought was something. This makes me feel guilty now, a bit sad, in the same way that I feel when I think back to how I hated the neighbor’s sable German shepherd, who nearly strangled herself on her chain in her snarling rushes to get me, while at the same time I felt sorry for her. P.250
A consistent theme throughout is Helen’s heartfelt love for animals – some that love her back and others that nearly kill her. But they give her the sense of belonging she never seems to find with her parents and siblings.
That Helen does ultimately climb out of the life of her childhood is both relieving and astonishing. Rooting for her at the turn of every page, I laughed and cried through her long, slow years of ire and setbacks. When Eric arrives on the scene as a ray of hope, like Helen I was both taken with him and skeptical of certain disappointment.
But that’s the thing. Pigs Can’t Swim leaves bits of hope along its path like breadcrumbs. Helen follows the trail, gathering those bits and tucking them away until the future – a future of her own – actually begins to take shape.
I arrived at the end of the story feeling like I’d reached the summit of a mountain after a long, arduous climb. Finally out of the dense forest of desperation, lunacy, and longing, the view is a promise and a reward all in one. Hard as it was to go with Peppe on her journey, I was left craving more.
I recommend this tale to those who feast on well-written literature, rich descriptions, and wry humor found in the most unlikely places. Many times I was reminded of the memoirs of Mary Karr as I read about a gritty life that is portrayed as sad, hilarious, and insane, all at the same time. Pigs Can’t Swim does more than entertain. It gives hope; hope that anyone can rise above her circumstances in life; and that indeed, pigs can swim after all.
Copyright © 2014 - Paulla Estes