Raised in Ruins: A Memoir
By Tara Neilson. West Margin Press, 2020. 272 pages. $16.99.
Even by Alaskan standards, Tara Neilson had an unusual childhood. Now in middle age and still living in a floathouse in Southeast Alaska, she reflects in this fascinating memoir on the years when her family of seven lived at the remote site of a burned-down cannery surrounded by the Tongass Forest.
If anyone doubts that children are resilient, capable of handling a harsh environment and sometimes fragile family circumstances with their love for the outdoors and family intact, this book proves that they are — or at least can be.
Neilson’s family, after living among relatives in the small community of Meyers Chuck, Alaska, decided in 1980 to lease an old salmon cannery property some 7 boat-miles away. The author, the second-oldest child, was 9. The plan was to join with several other families — “a group of intrepid families braving the apocalypse” — to found their own paradise. As it turned out, the other families backed out, and the Neilsons made the move by themselves. They towed a floathouse to the location and set about crafting a do-it-yourself life along a salmon (and bear) stream, where they homeschooled and eventually built a large home — “a wilderness mansion” — on part of the cannery site they laboriously cleared of debris.
The Neilson parents, in their daughter’s loving account, were each somewhat eccentric. The father, Gary, was a Vietnam veteran, a former helicopter mechanic seemingly capable of building or fixing anything, however impossible the task might seem to ordinary mortals. The mother, Romi, was an impractical dreamer who also thought that anything was possible, even as she lacked the homesteading skills one might have expected of her, was afraid of almost everything and suffered from depression after her fisherman brother was lost at sea. As the author reflects late in the book, about the transformation from ruins to home, “It took a Romi Neilson, with her limitless imagination, to see the potential for one family to bring it to life, and it took a Gary Neilson, with his limitless ability, to think, ‘I can do this,’ and then do it. And it took an entire family of seven giving their all to accomplish it.”
In the beginning, father Gary worked weekdays at Thorne Bay, a logging camp 20 miles across treacherous water from the cannery, and commuted each weekend in a 13-foot Boston Whaler. Later, he bought a portable sawmill and stayed home, sawing logs and doing carpentry for others in the region. When homeschooling became tedious, he transported the children in a wooden freight skiff he’d built himself, back and forth to the school in Meyers Chuck. The author, by the time she was 16, graduated to driving the skiff herself and being responsible for not drowning the younger children.
The children were largely feral, as they played among the ruins, ran through the forest, built forts and weaponry, and developed richly imaginative lives. They went without shoes much of the year, did not seem to own rain gear (wearing garbage bags in the worst weather), and were almost always hungry. Their playmates were a number of cats and, literally, packs of dogs; their favorite dogs frequently disappeared, presumably eaten by wolves. Once, the two smallest children were rescued from a deserted beach by fishermen who finally realized, from noticing their toughened feet, that maybe they weren’t actually lost.
Through it all, the children seemed to thrive in their “pocket universe.” At least, the author paints a nostalgic picture of those hard-worked years when life every single day proved an exciting adventure. Books, art, recorded movies, conversation, practical jokes, and music of all kinds dominated family life, and visitors or unexpected treats were cherished. The author was a voracious reader and a keeper of journals — a source, along with interviews of family members, that provides so much of what she captures here in detail.
There are, as might be expected in any memoir, portions that invite questions. Those years when the father commuted from Thorne Bay, a community with housing and supplies — why didn’t the family live there with him? Not remote enough? Was living out and boating all the way to Meyers Chuck for school worth the effort and daily danger? No one seemed to question the decision to live around rusted machinery and charred pilings, hardly a wilderness ideal. As for “living off the land,” the family did not hunt, fish, gather, or preserve their own foods but, instead, seemed to depend on rice and beans and other foods bought in bulk — and eventually a garden that was eaten up by the children before anything had a chance to grow to harvestable size. Only once, when their father was gone and they were completely out of food, did the oldest boy go out and shoot a deer, which he then had no idea how to field dress or quarter. How could anyone live on a salmon stream and not gorge on salmon, fresh or smoked or canned, year-round? Mother Neilson, with her soft heart, did not approve of killing.
Neilson writes that, growing up, she “spent a lot of time thinking about the unknown cannery workers who had lived and worked at the Union Bay cannery,” which had operated from 1916 to 1947. Once she reached adulthood and could access libraries and the internet, she was able to learn about some of those workers. In what amounts to an appendix to her book, she chronicles three of those men — one Chinese academic documenting (in an undercover way) cannery conditions in 1928, one Japanese-American artist in the 1930s, and one Norwegian immigrant in the 1930s and ‘40s, who was badly injured by a snapped cable. These portraits are as engrossing, in their own way, as her personal story.
Neilson grew up to be a journalist, editor and blogger. While “Raised in Ruins” is her first book, we can hope for much more from this attentive, compassionate, imaginative, resourceful and very skillful writer.
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