Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams


May 31, 2012 by Vicki

Fair warning, if you have ever lost someone due to cancer, this book will stir those memories again. Depending on where you are in the grieving process, this book maybe too hard for you to read. However, it may also help heal your emotional and psychological wounds. Only you can make that judgement call. To all those suffering from loss due to cancer, I grieve with you.

I lost my grandfather to pancreatic cancer. We kept him home and looked after him until he passed. It was both the hardest and most beautiful thing I have ever done. Watching someone you love, die, and knowing that there’s nothing you can do except make them comfortable, is heart wrenching. Yet, what made all the heartache worthwhile was being able to help my grandfather die with dignity in his own home.

Terry Tempest Williams captures both the heartache and the wonder in her novel Refuge An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Family remains at the center of this story. Her family gathers together to support and care for one of their members. They also reach out an understanding hand to those experiencing similar losses in their area. Her family had faced the same threat before, but her mother had successfully fought it off. In Refuge, however, they cannot win this battle. All they can do is take care and love their mother and each other.  I remember caring for my grandfather the same way she and her family care for her mother at the end.  The family bonded together to face something no one could face alone.

Refuge mixes her family’s trial by fire with the flooding of her beloved Salt Lake from 1982 to 1989. Salt Lake remains Terry Williams solace and refuge throughout the novel. In the course of the story, she realizes that the flood is natural and that the surrounding human efforts are the unnatural part of the story. She watches as various bird populations find new nesting grounds or adapt to the currentSaltLake. She despairs of the people in her own area who want to take the salt out of Salt Lake. They don’t realize how important the natural cycle is for wildlife and, perhaps for human life as well. Realizing that her mother’s death is part of the natural cycle helps with her grief.

I know after I lost my grandfather, I needed to be outside, in Nature and in the sunshine. I could only really grieve when I could see the sky and smell the trees surrounding me. Somehow, outside of the city, I could feel my grandfather with me. In man-made structures, I felt I had to be strong for my family. Only in the solitude of Nature could I allow grief to overwhelm me. Is this true for everyone? Is it connected to how the landscape is also considered female?  I don’t know. I know that reading Refuge resonated inside of me. Her grieving took a similar course to my own.

What is unnatural in her mother’s death is the cause. She discovers the military bombing of Utah most likely caused her family’s affliction with cancer. Only the last chapter of Refuge deals directly with this information. Yet, questions surrounding female silence crop up throughout the book. What are we willing to give up in order to not “rock the boat”? When does silence become compliance?”

I thoroughly recommend Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, as long as you are not too early in the grieving process. I don’t think I could have read this book in the first year after loosing my grandfather. Refuge raises questions concerning women and their relationship to Nature, women and silence, women and grief, and finally women and their families.

One thought on “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

  1. RM Luffman says:

    I have certainly found nature to be the natural place to grieve. But then again, I grew up physically and -we’ll call it spiritually- close to nature.

    I have already been making it widely known that I wish to be cremated and laid to rest in a specific place on the vast acres that my parents have inherited from my grandparents. We planted a memorial garden for my mother’s mother as well as my father’s father, when they passed.

    We return our dead to the earth, typically, as a society. We send flowers to those in grief, and adorn the funeral halls in them. There is certainly an argument for society programming us this way. While I am usually the first to demonize Society as a whole, in this instance, I believe it to be species driven.

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