Carolyn F. Ruffin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes "I Passed This Way" from the road, not from her destination. Her title is past tense, but this partial autobiography is the past recalled to answer present questions.

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She tells time by the number of schools she attends in childhood, by the teacher's residences her family captures like an army on the move, and by the artist's retreats she builds for herself. All the while Sylvia is asking, as she will when the autobiography closes, what will I be—a teacher, an artist, a writer, a mother, a child, a wife?

In her book she is each of these at some time. For several taxing years she is all of these at once. Yet, in telling how she passed this way, she is most of all what comes of being what you must be despite all challenges. What gives this book its power is Ashton-Warner's scrap with the cautious and the blindly secure. She takes on bureaucracy of the spirit as well as red tape in institutions.

Her scrappiness fills the book with straight talk. She delivers swift, deft perceptions. Often her native New Zealand is the target. "I'd rather see education falling down and getting up again in the open slather of experiment as in the United States than playing it safe within the letter of the law. The concern of New Zealand for safety, its crippling caution."

Her wide-ranging love gives the book its poetry, its humor, and an array of carefully drawn human beings. Her mother and her husband, Keith, absorb almost as much of her rememberings as do events in her own life. Yet even with these huge souls to record, she spends great care in getting down images of those who passed her view only briefly. Some of the best portraits are spinster teachers she idealizes or grudgingly thanks for their toughness….

Ashton-Warner's free wheeling style may even cause some readers to grumble. She uses a kind of refrain—repeating in the same phrases images and questions that pester her. As the book progresses, the effect of the refrains is to make her questions our questions. We ask, tell it again, as we would of a favorite aunt at a family reunion….

What endears about "I Passed This Way" is its record of someone who is still trying to answer these questions. As she says, it makes one ponder on what that proves.

Carolyn F. Ruffin, "She Asks Our Questions," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), December 3, 1979, p. B12.

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