A Girl from Yamhill operates on many levels: as a straightforward recounting of the events in the life of a fairly ordinary child, as a psychological study of a young girl and particularly her relationship with her mother, as the development of a writer, and as a history of American life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A reader of Cleary’s fiction might be surprised at the tone of her memoirs, for although filled with a number of pleasant childhood recollections, the book is by no means a mere chronicle of youthful delights. In fact, Cleary’s youth is quite typical in its combination of wonderful and painful memories, with an almost equal amount of joy and distress. The book presents a psychologically honest recollection, not only delineating childhood’s fun but dealing with its heartache and frustrations in a straightforward manner as well. She vividly describes the pain that she feels at being one of only two children left out of the class play and her fear and sadness when her father loses his job during the Great Depression and her mother starts to lose her hair from stress. Yet her joys are as intense as her sorrows, and the thrill of the first pair of roller skates and carefree summer interludes at the Pudding River with her friend Claudine’s family receive equal emphasis.
This memoir honestly and movingly examines the troubled relationship between Cleary and her mother, an energetic, determined, intelligent woman who is overqualified and overprepared for her role as a homemaker and mother of one. She dominates every facet of her daughter’s life, as if hoping to relive her own through it....
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A Girl from Yamhill, although written for a general rather than a specifically young adult audience, nevertheless proves particularly valuable for the young reader. Those who have grown up reading Cleary’s fiction will find it fascinating to trace the origins of many of her characters, most of whom live in the vicinity of Klickitat Street in Portland and frequent the public library, as she did. Her struggle with braces and long, woolen winter underwear, her plump best friend, her love of roller skating, and her ballet lessons—all reappear in the character of Ellen Tebbits. Even Cleary’s doll, named Fordson-Lafayette after her neighbor’s tractor, reappears as Ramona Quimby’s doll, Chevrolet, named after her aunt’s car.
Cleary’s purpose in writing these memoirs, however, is to validate the experience of childhood and young adulthood, as well as to examine the life and development of a child with as much seriousness as they deserve. Although not yet a regular part of high-school curriculum, or even an accepted classic in the field, A Girl from Yamhill offers a valuable reading experience on so many different levels, both personal and historical, that it would make an excellent addition to any young person’s library.