Debra Monroe claims not to be a trailblazer, but I’m willing to bet this paycheck that no one else has beaten a path from Spooner, Wisconsin to San Marcos via Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Manhattan, Kansas, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Greensboro, North Carolina. Such is life in academia today, as it was in the 1970s and ’80s, the ground Monroe covers in her lively new memoir, My Unsentimental Education.
Spooner, a town of about 2,500 in the piney woods of northern Wisconsin, is where Monroe underwent what she calls her “early grooming to be a farm wife,” where she was “raised, cultivated like a crop, to settle on a man” and then to live out the rest of her quiet life in rural anticlimax. This is the way of things in northern Wisconsin — you’re born, you stay, you die.
But at an early age Monroe found the true love of her life, books, and this one, her sixth, tracks her rise in literary academia in an era when women… well, when women weren’t supposed to aspire to such pursuits, and when most of her female classmates couldn’t fathom her desire for more than an MRS degree. Monroe’s chronicle of her swim against this ever-chilly current should be required reading for anyone, male or female, pursuing such a career, or even an advanced lit or writing degree. “If it weren’t for public education,” she writes, “I’d be a small-town waitress,” or, like her mother, “a middle-aged divorcee in a small, frozen town.”
It’s a more nuanced story than one might imagine. The idea of settling down with a Spooner man and living a so-called stable life — to be “caught in the local pattern” — isn’t entirely unappealing to Monroe. “A dud husband is better than no husband,” she believes at one point. But academia “mixes badly with marriage,” she writes. “Dreams get sacrificed.” And so she continues to move from one cold college town and icy man to another.
My Unsentimental Education is a whirlwind narrative, people and place names piling up like firewood outside a Spooner cabin. What carries the book is Monroe’s nonstop, but somehow often unexpected, resigned humor. On a date with a stodgy professor, Monroe is told that although she drinks wine “like a thirsty horse,” she’s “not unattractive.” As her second marriage fizzles and money is tight, she writes, “I’ve always agreed with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, paraphrased here for modernity: soul problems vanish if your bank account is empty.”
But Monroe saves her funniest and most wistful writing to illustrate the gulf of understanding between her choice of a life in literature and her family’s ideas of a woman’s proper pursuits. When she attends a writing camp in high school, her parents are “confused by the whole episode, that I’d wanted to go, that I’d won a prize. They were used to prizes for best jam, best sales record for radial tires in the tristate area, best football playing — not best use of figurative language.” But rather than attempt to understand her family and contemporaries, Monroe’s real aim is an understanding of herself, particularly what she calls her schizophrenic inner struggle between cravings for education, love and lust, debating “whether I wanted to be sultry-powerful or brainy-powerful,” feeling “half-scholarly, half-lusty.” But in Texas, Monroe finally sheds those ideas beaten into her in northern Wisconsin and realizes that she can, in fact, strike a balance. In the early ’90s she lands a faculty job at Texas State University in San Marcos, where to this day she teaches writing in the MFA program, and a few years later, marries the right man.
“According to the codes of my childhood, I’d lived like a man,” Monroe writes. “I wasn’t a pioneer [or] a first-wave feminist — just a particle in that mass wave of women entering what had been, a generation earlier, a male province.”
It’s a helluva long and crooked journey from 1960s Spooner to present-day San Marcos. Had Monroe stayed in northern Wisconsin, she likely would have led a very fine, very simple life. But she wanted more than to become “a casserole-making wife,” or any of the options but one on her grade school What I Want To Be When I Grow Up worksheet — in order: mother, nurse, teacher, secretary, stewardess, other. “It’s safe to say I grew up to be Other,” she writes, “and this was my evolution, not a plan.”