Growing up as a hearing child of deaf parents, Kambri Crews (Burn Down the Ground: a Memoir) witnessed a culture and learned a language that only a minority experience. As if that weren’t an interesting enough story, add a couple of counter culture parents who escape to the north Texas woods and build a hand-made home. The act of burning down the ground offers the family a fresh start physically and spiritually, but Crews’ impulsive and flamboyant father grows restless with the quiet life and creates chaos for the family, ultimately landing him a 20 year prison sentence. Crews suffers though hijinks like when she performs in a prestigious theater competition and, to her horror, her father takes the stage and performs his Elvis impersonation. She is forbidden from patronizing a pizza restaurant because her father claims they are prejudiced against the deaf because they called police to remove him when he fell asleep at a table; he didn’t mention that he was drunk. Crews and her brother have shockingly little supervision since her father disappears for long periods of time and her mother is away at work. Pony riding, pack-a-day smoker Crews herself is pressed into working at age fourteen to keep the family afloat financially. Bad choices abound, yet Crews’ sense of humor keep the account from being too overwhelmingly bleak, and her drive and inner strength lead her to survive and thrive.
In contrast to the poverty Crews endured, Wendy Burden, (Dead End Gene Pool: a Memoir) grew up with the kind of luxury that only the extremely rich descendants of the Vanderbilt dynasty know, but wealth doesn’t offer immunity from addiction, mental illness, and negligence. Burden and Crews have in common their forced independence at early ages. When Burden’s father commits suicide, her grandparents and hired help become the reluctant guardians of seven-year-old Wendy and her two brothers, while her globetrotting mother devotes herself to acquiring the perfect tan. When her mother remarries, Burden is hauled off to live in Paris while her brothers stay in American prep schools and spend breaks with their grandparents. Burden’s assimilation into French culture is not eased by living with her crude stepfather and her self-absorbed alcoholic mother. Burden is an oddly (or perhaps not too oddly) detached narrator. Her deprecating portrayal of herself is amusing, but heartbreaking–the clown who is crying inside. I felt closest to her when she falls for a morose bisexual neighbor whom she idealizes, possibly because of his remoteness and lack of emotion. Burden relates the decline of her grandparents and the addictions of her brothers with nary a word about how or if she managed to survive relatively unscathed.
(For another look at Dead End Gene Pool, check out our post: The Grass is Not Always Greener as a Vanderbilt.)