To read Shane McCrae’s memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping, is to read two hundred and fifty-five pages worth of masterfully crafted, emotionally resonant poetry, however blocked, presented, and marketed as prose.
With a frank admission that is relatively unusual in the literary genre of memoir, but both welcome and refreshing, both needed and long overdue, McCrae acknowledges early on the fragmentary nature of memory (“Because I write in memory of my memory, I write knowing that some of what I write will be inaccurate—insofar as each person, each self, is constituted of accumulated memories, each person is constituted of both accuracies and inaccuracies”). Memories that are incredibly painful for him to recount are described in vivid detail: his beatings at the hands of his White supremacist grandfather, McCrae’s encouraged imitation of his grandmother’s demonstration of the Nazi salute, his grandmother’s recording of his race as “White” on the birth certificate, and his grandparents’ less physically violent (though no less racist) macroaggressions (“Whenever I overheard my grandfather commenting on what he perceived to be the inarticulateness of a black student-athlete being interviewed on the local news, whenever my grandmother whispered to me as she leaned over the cash box at one of our biennial garage sales, ‘Watch out for the Mexicans. They steal.’”)
On McCrae the child, such repetitive, eventually expected forms of racial violence not only prove perniciously internalizing and alienating in their effects (“I was reminded that I could not be their child, that my skin would not permit it”), but prove also equally totalizing: “I imagined white as the finishing touch to every colored thing.”
As much as Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is about remembering, it is also about discovering and unremembering. As much as it concerns what is withheld, it also concerns what is manufactured. As much as it employs language to give voice to seemingly ineffable experiences like trauma, it attempts to find new language with which to do so. For example, McCrae’s apt use of the term “shadow grandfather” to describe his grandmother’s first husband, someone whom he never met but nonetheless finds intriguing in his likeability, popularity, professional and financial success, and seemingly progressive racial attitudes—all of which make him a foil for his less successful, unapologetically racist, adulterous, and abusive grandfather (his grandmother’s third husband):
“My grandmother always insisted she had been the most popular girl in her high school, and had married the most popular boy, the school’s star athlete, captain of the football team, also the quarterback, captain of the basketball team, who later when on to become a professional football player and a millionaire They were friends with everybody, even the one black student in their school, a boy their age. On weekends, they would drive him to the next town so he could date—there were no black girls in Walla Walla, and he couldn’t date a white girl.”
In such passages, you can almost feel McCrae’s near-tearful wistfulness at what could have easily been, and, conversely, what would not have been. Not just to McCrae, though, but to his mother, an arguably tragic “character” for whom he understandably reserves pity at times: “My grandfather and my grandmother married when my mother was five, at which time he told her he would adopt her when she turned thirteen if she was good. Then he beat her until she was good. Then he just beat her.”
At other times, though, yet toward his mother all the same, McCrae also reserves slight resentment for knowingly letting his grandparents (albeit under threat) continue to make his kidnapping a success: “And my mother, whenever she explained to me why I was living with my grandparents and not with her, which she did almost every time I saw her, explained with the gentlest words possible, but also quietly, her voice at the edge of a whisper, so that what they did seemed like a normal thing but also something I should never talk about to anybody.” Though he never says as much in so many words, McCrae sees in his mother both a fellow victim and an accomplice (however an unenthusiastic one).
Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is not only about a child’s trauma, but also intergenerational trauma, as evident in McCrae’s recognition of the disturbingly similar circumstances of his mother’s abuse at the hands of her own kidnappers: “When my mother was two years old, my grandmother took her from my biological grandfather, she took my mother away and didn’t tell my biological grandfather where she was taking her, as my grandmother would later take me from my father, kidnap me, and my mother didn’t find her biological father until she was sixty.”
Aside from an attempt to find and apply new language to give voice to seemingly ineffable experiences like trauma, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun reads like a kind of geographical travelog. In McCrae’s memoir, we are taken from Portland, Oregon (the author’s birthplace) to Round Rock, Texas, from Round Rock to Livermore, California, from Livermore to Beaverton, Oregon, and from Beaverton to Salem throughout McCrae’s’s middle and high school years. However, we are also poetically introduced (or reintroduced) to the notion of identity as contingent on place and the perceptions of those whose claim to any given location precedes one’s own: “I’ve both regretted not being Mexican and wished I were more obviously black. / I was Mexican in Iowa City a few times. / I was often Mexican in Salem, Oregon…Probably I was Mexican when I lived in California at least as often as I was Mexican in Oregon.” Had McCrae not been kidnapped and raised in such an abusive household as his racist maternal grandparents’ home proved to be, the reader may well wonder, would he have felt as out of place as a light-skinned African-American in the United States, occupying an admittedly nebulous space of identity and feeling the attendant shame from which he admits to struggling to free himself?
In Pulling the Chariot, memorably insightful phrases and variations of such phrases abound. For example, about two thirds of the way into the memoir, McCrae asks, “And how do you know who you are if you can’t be sure when and for how long you lived anywhere?” Though rarely again treated to the question as initially phrased, we are reminded of the original question’s philosophical import, over and over, throughout the remainder of the memoir. Whether familiar with the rhetorical device of anaphora or not, let alone the significance of repetition in poetry, we recognize its unique occurrence within the text—one otherwise formatted and marketed as prose but whose poetic features distinguish it from equally compelling personal stories by authors with similar literary abilities.
Shane McCrae’s memoir is a recounting of the kidnapping of the author by his maternal grandparents and his subsequent abuse at their hands. It is also an account of failure: the failure of his grandparents to successfully extinguish his Blackness, their failure to keep him from evolving into an exceptional individual of literary merit, their failure to stop him from leading the improbably great life he lived and does still: “The final test of a kidnapping’s success is whether the kidnapped child lives. Even if the kidnappers took the child with the intention of raising him as their own, if he lives, the kidnapping fails. If he lives, he will look.” Ultimately, then, Pulling the Chariot is an account of being found, of finding oneself. Such a story alone makes McCrae’s memoir worth a read. However, the emotional resonance and literary skill with which it is written makes it worth several.