New memoir offers a nuanced look back on an unconventional, often harrowing Alaska childhood

Inside Passage

By Keema Waterfield. Green Writers Press, 2021. 229 pages. $19.95

When Keema Waterfield attempted to get a driver’s license as a teenager, she ran into a problem; none of her paperwork matched. She wasn’t sure of her birthday or which last name was hers. The DMV worker finally accepted her explanation: “Hippies.”

Waterfield was born during a party in an Anchorage trailer in 1980, child of a 20-year-old free-spirited artist-musician mother and an older, pot-dealing father. Her young life was an unstable one that involved moving among Anchorage, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Douglas and Fairbanks as well as locations in Washington, Oregon, and California, and living with a series of stepfathers, boyfriends of her mother’s, and relatives.

The title “Inside Passage” comes from the chapter of that name, recalling summers of Southeast Alaska ferry travel to various music festivals and fairs with her mother and younger siblings. These were the happy times, sleeping in the family tent with shared blankets, working the festival booths and getting up on stage to sing with her mother and sister. The title also suggests the coming-of-age nature of this memoir.

Well-balanced between heartbreaking experiences of the child and thoughtful reflections of the adult narrator, Waterfield presents what is ultimately a story of the bonds between mother and daughter, one who did the best she could in her flawed way and the other who had to act as the adult in her chaotic world.

Much is said and written these days about generational trauma and the perpetuation of abuse and poverty. Waterfield’s grandmother, we learn, was married many times and often absent from the children she left alone on a homestead in Portage. Waterfield’s mother, responsible for homestead chores and raising younger siblings, was sexually abused by older brothers; she left home at an early age and lived with a series of abusive men. Waterfield herself was abused in multiple ways by partners of her mother.

By strength of will and with the support of friends and their families, Waterfield not only survived her childhood but went on to build the kind of life that can give us this remarkably self-aware and forgiving book, so much richer for its understanding and beauty than a typical “trauma memoir.”

In a chapter called “The Hard One,” Waterfield briefly addresses the most traumatic episode of her life, when her mother left her two toddlers with a boyfriend for a few days while she went to pick up and move belongings from one place to another. “I remember those days we were left with Ray with the accuracy of a three-year-old child ...” There was cruelty involved, threats and a gun, and then being abandoned to be found wandering, hungry and dirty, by a stranger.

Instead of entirely blaming her mother for what seems an inexcusable lack of judgment and responsibility, Waterfield reflects on her mother’s own anguish. “The world had not prepared my mother for con artists and pedophiles outside of her own family. Until Ray, the safest people in the world had always been anyone she wasn’t connected to by blood.”

The author, who earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Montana, has distinguished herself from so many other memoir writers not only by reaching beyond the details of her singular life to show readers something of the human spirit, but by doing so with a finely evocative, lively and sometimes even humorous prose. Describing her mother and one of the mismatched husbands, she writes, “She had that hippie heart still. She loved music in a minor key, paint under her fingernails, sunset with a good joint. Thom was more black-and-white, with old school spiritual leanings and the expectations of gender roles that went with it.”

She describes Ketchikan, where she first lived at age 5, as a city that “slides down off the surrounding mountains into the Tongass Narrows ... The wet smell of ocean and rainforest put a joy in me I couldn’t name, even as Grandma grumbled at the moss bunched up in the rooftop and lining the cracks in her sidewalks.”

At age 8, when a former stepfather presents her with an embarrassingly pink bicycle, she wants to reject both him and the bike. “I wanted to hate the faint smell of aftershave that clung to him, the crease in his knuckles ... I wanted to upend the bucket of tears I hid from him, the ones I habitually saved up until they spilled over at my classmates’ birthday parties when they had particularly nice fathers.” She wanted to tell him that “the last thing I wanted was to be in command of a moving vehicle so naked to the world that a stick in the spokes might undo it.”

Later, living on the north end of Douglas Island in a made-over bus with a honey bucket in the same curtained space with dishes and food, her mother insisted, “You’ll remember it fondly when you’re older.” But fifth grade had its social challenges, and Waterfield “yearned for the invisibility of normalcy. Maybe they’d notice me less if I didn’t stick out like an enormous piece of driftwood on a sandy beach.”

Other than the man known as Ray and a few others limited to first names, Waterfield names names, and Alaskans will likely enjoy recognizing people, places and events from the 1980s and ’90s. Kim Rich, the author of “Johnny’s Girl,” about growing up in Anchorage’s underworld, makes a couple of appearances, including at the start as “a friend of a friend of a future stepdad who’d saved my newborn life.” Malcolm and Cindy Roberts, parents of a schoolmate who befriended Waterfield when she was living on her own at age 15, welcomed her into their home. “They were normal, normal, normal in a way I felt I could never be.”

There is also a Mr. Norman, a Juneau music teacher who encouraged both Waterfield girls and took them shopping at Christmas for things of their own, but who was lost to them with yet another family move. (“I wished he had applied for the open stepdad position.”) Waterfield makes clear that, surrounding the chaos and instability of her home life, these other adults, simply by being present and kind, made all the difference. Even the stepfather — the one who kept all her journals and returned them to her — was not so bad after all.

“Inside Passage,” in the end, shows us the power of family love, however complicated by circumstances, when it pairs up with a child’s fierce determination and the good hearts of others.