An American Childhood

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Readers of Dillard’s previous books will not be surprised to find that she approaches her subject in a quirky way. (How does one classify PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK? HOLY THE FIRM? ENCOUNTERS WITH CHINESE WRITERS?) The basic facts of autobiography are here: Dillard was born in 1945, the eldest of three daughters of Frank and Pam Doak. She grew up in Pittsburgh at a time when American industry was enjoying unparalleled prosperity; through a family firm, the perfectly named American Standard, the Doaks shared in that well-being. Annie went to school, played baseball, read books and collected rocks, and metamorphosed into a rebellious teenager.

There is no straightforward chronological narrative in which these experiences are related, however, nor are Dillard’s emphases--what she includes, what she leaves out--those of the conventional memoirist. Her controlling subject is not the growth of her individual sensibility; rather, she uses her experience to re-create the fall into time, the growth of awareness that every human being experiences: “I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years.” Indeed, it is this “awakening” that makes human beings unique among all the creatures of the Earth: “Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be?”

Whether she is remembering her early perception of nuns (“those white boards like...

(The entire section is 518 words.)