Review by Chryss Yost
It’s difficult to write a review of an exceptionally beautiful book, such as Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, without feeling that you are somehow profaning the entire project. How to summarize what is so elegantly wrought?
Late Migrations is an elegantly-crafted collection of brief essays, many less than a page long, that focus on Renkl’s family history and the way she sees reflections of that history in the natural world, and the reflection of that natural world in her family. (The hardcover edition also includes lovely full-color plates of collages created by Renkl’s brother, Billy Renkl.) Before the book begins, the reader is presented with “Margaret Renkl’s Maternal Family Tree”: a diagram showing the author’s siblings, parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents who will appear as “Wibby,” “Mimi,” Granddaddy,” “Mother Ollie,” “Mama Alice.” While Renkl is the sole author, these multiple histories and voices shape the book. Set in the American south, the books start in Lower Alabama in 1931, with the chapter “In Which My Grandmother Tells the Story of My Mother’s Birth.” It is the first of a half dozen or so entries scattered through the collection written with her grandmother’s intonation, describing going into labor after a day of canning peaches:
“And all along as I would peel I was eating, so that night around twelve o’clock I woke up and said, “Max, my stomach is hurting so much I just can’t stand it hardly. I must have eaten too many of those peaches.”
And so once in a while, you see, it would just get worse; then it would get better.“
In that line, Mimi’s voice sets the tone for the book, and in some ways the attitude of the author, who seems hell-bent on hard times being a temporary and inevitable part of life. While other family members are present throughout the book as influences, as characters, only Mimi gets these opportunities to narrate her own stories. This expresses Renkl’s intimate connection with her family history in a way that feels more immediate, as links in a chain that memory allows you to move up or down; now we are in the 30s, now the present, now the 70s.
The essays in Late Migrations are short, some sticking a toe over the border into prose poetry, an effect which is magnified by the lushness of Renkl’s language. And while these essays are very much of a place, they are also of a time of life that will resonate with many readers. Though the book was written prior to the pandemic, the sense of being a little bit distanced and observing carefully are perhaps amplified by the slowing and reflection caused by Covid-19. Even prior to Covid, people became ill. Renkl’s parents are aging and becoming vulnerable. Her own role is shifting from being the cared-for to being caregiver. Like many of us now, Renkl is walking through a valley of shadows. Her family is changing. Worse, the climate is changing, and Renkl seems to be processing what it means that these specific hard times may not actually get better.
Family history is tightly interwoven with Renkl’s observations of the natural world and her aging parents. The chapters reflect and amplify the themes of mortality: “The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death; everything that lives will die, and everything that dies will be eaten,” she writes, having unsuccessfully tried to host wild bluebirds to nest in her yard. “Bluebirds eat insects; snakes eat bluebirds; hawks eat snakes; owls eat hawks. That’s how wildness works, and I know it. I was heartbroken anyway.”
While Late Migrations is not a mystery, there is movement and action that is built and revealed through the chapters. For that reason, it seems impolite, at the very least, to reveal the action of the book with a greater degree of specificity. On some level, Renkl’s root subject is natural systems and their connections. Each of us is part of multiple systems: parent/child, nature/creature, reader/writer, to name a few. We are not alone, nor are we ever truly independent. As animals are compelled to make seasonal migration, humans are also subject to the seasons or transitions of age or threats to the climate. We may feel solitary at times, but the connections are always there, the past and the present, pulling or pushing. As Renkl writes: “[…] the shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love’s own twin.” In Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl shows us the long shadows cast by deep connections with beauty and tenderness.