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Book Review: Under the Birch Tree

Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home. Nancy Chadwick. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, June 19, 2018, Trade Paperback, 243 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Fox.

The word journeymost commonly implies a destination. To “take a journey” evokes a sense of distance, of miles traveled. Some might describe a journey as a movement, as in the passage from childhood to adulthood, or from a state of confusion to making sense of things. Some journeys have a circumspect goal: graduating from college, finding a job. Some are a movement away from a painful past. 

An inner journey does not cover physical distance, nor does it have a preconceived goal. But the journey to “Know Thyself,” as Socrates observed, may be the most important expedition any of us embark upon.

Such is the journey undertaken by Nancy Chadwick in her memoir, Under the Birch Tree. The story begins as a little girl grows up in a suburb of Chicago. Her life is ordered, almost to the point of perfection. She revels in a perfectly decorated bedroom, plays on a manicured lawn, and attends a private school. The perfection tarnishes, however, with a mother who is needy and insecure, and a father who is distant and unaffectionate. As her family becomes increasingly dysfunctional, the author feels drawn to a grouping of birch trees in the corner of the yard. She feels connected to them, to their beauty and grace, but most of all to the fact that they are rooted—planted in this place she calls home. 

When her parents ultimately divorce, Ms. Chadwick moves away from the only home she has ever known. She misses the birch trees—the silver peeling bark, the shade in summer, and the branches overhead. She misses the sense of place they gave her, the security she felt under their rustling leaves. She wonders how she will ever return to that place of belonging, and so her journey begins.

She wobbles through a new high school with little support from her family. Her father remarries, and her mother becomes even more distant and self-absorbed. There are times the author feels she is the caregiver for her mother and so misses out on many of the usual high school activities, adding to her sense of isolation. She finds her way more solidly in college at Marquette University. She is on her own now, and majors in Journalism. She makes friends and finally begins to feel that she is a part of the world around her. Just when she is comfortable with herself, however, she faces graduation and the prospect of finding a job. Daunted, she seems to be starting all over again.

Her journey continues from Chicago to San Francisco, through relationships, job changes, and new apartments. She learns to be alone but not lonely; that it’s not selfish to take care of herself, and that she cannot be responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Each time she comes across a birch tree, she is reminded that even though she is uprooted, she has completed the most significant passage of all: the journey of self-discovery. 


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