In keeping with the spirit of “waking-up” that Dillard sees as essential to coming alive, An American Childhood analyzes how that “waking-up” begins and functions. The author’s discussion of Pittsburgh, for example, notes the city’s own consciousness from an unruly preindustrial dreamscape into an industrialized urban landscape. Similarly, her father “wakes up” one day to fulfill his dream of leaving Pittsburgh. Like Dillard, her father is deeply moved by books; after years of reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), he leaves his young wife and three daughters to cruise downriver to New Orleans. Dillard presents the act as a natural adventure for her father to undertake; she is marked for good by his adventure, and because of it she will see her own, slower and less deliberate departure as equally appropriate.
Dillard’s coming awake was a gradual discovery of her own recklessness. She asks, “Was everything beautiful so bold?” answering “yes” by building up narratives laced with a reckless and disturbingly bold beauty. One scene finds her family staring in awe at little Jo Ann Sheehy skating on the frozen street one icy winter night. “Here were beauty and mystery outside the house,” writes Dillard, “and peace and safety within.” Because her parents did not disapprove of such a scene, the young Dillard not only is captivated by the beauty of recklessness but also sees its value. That was the originating moment for her own unstoppable boldness.
The slight adventures Dillard recounts are for her as exemplary of freedom as Saint Augustine’s stolen pears were for him. Even at age five, she learns how to enter the imaginative inner world of fiction deliberately or the outer world of reason at whim. At seven, Dillard roams the neighborhood freely, arming herself with memorized street names and phone numbers. She describes an incident in which a driver whose car she and some friends have pelted with snowballs in turn chases them across the neighborhood backyards until, finally, exhilarated by the hunt, Dillard believes she could now die happy.
Eventually, Dillard’s joy in the beauty of recklessness develops into an overriding search for information about the dangerous...
(The entire section is 926 words.)