As I sit here, over 2000 miles from the author and the North Idaho setting of Jackie Henrion’s Rerooted, I feel as if my mind has emerged from a voyage during which both time and place were irrelevant, then re-shaped so to write this reflection. Moreover, I feel like I had to assemble abstract pieces of a puzzle, to reflect on the book. Henrion’s novel reminded me of Johnson’s introduction to “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” which describes Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s lifelong perplexity about Dickinson’s poem, “What embarrassed Higginson about the poems was his inability to classify them [...] what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism” (Johnson, 2). In the same way, I’m rummaging around, trying to find a category or classification for Henrion’s book.
It would be an injustice to simplify Henrion’s work as the fictionalized story of a woman “who escapes a brutal marriage in Michigan and arrives in the small North Idaho town in 1908” (Henrion). While in Michigan, character Marie Root came under the tutelage of a Chinese labor boss and a French Hotel owner who runs a brothel. In 1920, she seized an opportunity to redeem the hotel from a gambling debt and transformed it into a virtual finishing school for women by offering hospitality services. In this way, she managed to survive and thrive in the remote wilds of a male-dominated environment until her death in 1968; however, she recounted her various famous and infamous visitors with pragmatic gusto.
My initial impression was that of the detailed citations of the time frame, beginning with November 2016 and reaching as far back as 3700 b.c. The book seemed to be presented in no chronological order as if time were irrelevant—or perhaps—collapsed purposefully into a present tense. This was somewhat disturbing to me. When I questioned the author, she answered cryptically, “That’s a good start, for what disturbs [me], informs [me].” I felt frustrated and questioned her methods again. She responded, “Of course, that is your mind doing its job. It would prefer to conserve energy by being hand-led with a conventional narrative.” She sent me a reference to Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who wrote “Thinking: Fast and Slow.” I looked up the book on Amazon, read the sample, but balked at the book’s 500 pages, so I asked her about its relevance. She said:
"As I studied poetry at Naropa, I realized that sometimes it seems hard to understand. But by devoting the time to consider the possible meanings, which Kahneman calls the mind’s “System 2,” you start to realize that the extra effort is worth it. It requires an equal amount of creativity by the reader and a willingness to consider multiple meanings. Kahneman explains that the extra effort is kind of like a muscle. It’s worth the exercise, especially when changing [social] conditions call for new and creative solutions."
A similar effect was accomplished by changing the settings from the rural village of Hope, Idaho, to Mt. Pleasant Michigan, Brooklyn, and Vienna. In a further complication, “factoids” are dropped as clues or motifs, which only later act as “keys” one might acquire in a video game to overcome adversaries.
The primary character Marie Root wrote letters to a childhood friend as a journal to express her feelings and views, the rose motif was a unifying conceptual metaphor, and the “statement” was about female sexuality. I questioned the author about the letter, which sparked the following exchange:
"Letters are fascinating to me because they can be intimate without immediate reaction. Because they are addressed to a specific individual, they convey not only the author’s view but also to the characteristics of the receiver. In Marie Root’s case, her imagined childhood friend is an Ojibwa girl with whom she was raised, providing her with an unusual grounding in nature and philosophy. The letters inhabit a space between diary and essay. They require care in composition and word choice, rare in these days of instant and constant contact."
The wounds suffered by the protagonist in her abusive young marriage remind me of the those referred to by Gloria Anzaldúa in her essay “now let us shift...” when she says our new stories involve “the process of emotional psychical dismemberment, splitting body/mind/spirit/soul, and the creative work of putting all the pieces together in a new form” (Anzaldúa, 546). Henrion pointed me in the direction of another resource, “I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.” She said part of her challenge in describing how Marie transcended her mental shock and how she searched for a form to present the issues of sexuality, was described in the introduction, “how does one create textual works where the authorial hold over the text is somehow distanced […] yet where the structural impact of experience of living, of loving, of knowing, of reading is in fact recognized” (Bergvall, 21). It seemed to me that Henrion achieved the experience of dislocation masterfully in the form she used. I felt equally confused as the protagonist, until the “blossoming” of her agency and independence.
For example, I found myself wondering if I really cared about the characters. I also wondered why the author has inserted snippets of her memoir into the anti-narrative progression. It was not until halfway through the book, where a Chinese lawyer in Spokane speaks about Marie Root with some heart “She had a quality of...em, perhaps it could be called respect, a kind of intimate respect, as if she were gathering all those who surrounded her in a kind of cradle or net...like safe...like home.” At that point, I found myself wanting to know more about the character and how she interacted with others. I could also detect that the author’s relationship with her mother and friend Jenny bore traces of a similar obscuring silence between episodes.
There are certainly some humorous sections dealing with a very straightforward attitude towards sexuality, quite modern and pragmatic for a woman in the early 1900s, but hard-won.
By the end of the book, Henrion provides a detailed and intellectually challenging explanation of her objectives and methods. It effectively explains some of the more abstract poems and reveals an ambitious experiment in form. I find myself thinking about sections of the book way after my initial reading. Even paging back through to verify information and implications of the complex and skillful weaving. If you enjoy crossword puzzles, you will enjoy this book, and you might even feel a little brighter through the discovery of it.
Author Jackie Henrion
Anzaldúa, Gloria E. & Keating, Anna Louise. “Now let us shift...the path of conocimiento...inner work, public acts” from this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. Routledge, 2002. pp. 540-592
Bergvall, Caroline, et al. I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Les Figues Press, 2012.
Dickinson, Emily. Ed. Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown and Company, 1961.
Henrion, Jackie. Personal encounter. 10 Oct. 2019
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Kindle Edition.