Written by Brendan O’Meara (email sign up form ==========>)
Shepherd, A Memoir, by Richard Gilbert, Michigan State University Press, 318 pages, $24.95
Part of what made reading Shepherd so enjoyable was knowing some of the story behind the story. Day 1 of a book’s conception is never—repeat, never—what the book will look like when it births. At that point you cut the cord and watch the book gasp for air. Give it a whack on the bum.
Richard Gilbert’s journey with Shepherd started years ago. It was at one point hundreds of pages longer. It had different set pieces, different foci, and what finally dropped to the ground was his beautifully written memoir about farming and fatherhood. My copy has more dog ears than a litter of pups. Shepherd is funny, sad, and humbling as we follow Richard through all sorts of physical and emotional injury.
Shepherd is also a book I’d never pick up had I not known the author. It widened my lens as to what and where I may find a great story. The title is a trusting title: We must believe that we will be shepherded by the writer because otherwise all we know is that there will be an adorable set of lambs suckling on a nurturing ewe (the book’s cover).
“All we needed to make my dream come true, I’d vowed to myself after our exhausting relocation, was our own land. I pictured cattle lowing across a drowsy green valley in the sun-heavy afternoon, a red banty hen clucking in the barnyard dust. What I hadn’t known as a daydreaming kid in Florida, and couldn’t foresee as a neophyte agrarian in Athens buying land and livestock, was that my Eden could be so very complicated. All I knew, though I wasn’t sure why, was that I had to act on my desire at last.”
This is on Page 3 and it gives you a sense of a man at a distance, wiser, almost upset with himself for the perils and frustations that lie ahead that we as readers have yet to experience. “All WE needed to make MY dream come true…” That’s a tough burden to bear that in order to fulfill a desire of one’s heart, there are people in tow. It would be so much easier if we were alone in these pursuits. Or would it be? Richard had his wife and two young children (the book is dedicated to them first). His wife had a steady, well-paying job, while Richard worked at a university press (also a steady job) for eight hours and a farmer for the remaining sixteen. Sleep happened when it happened.
Dreams are hard to live with when they, at times, weigh others down.
There’s always the question of fatherhood, past and present. Richard writes, “Explaining my father without diminishing him would take hours, days, a lifetime.”
Even when critical of our fathers, most us can look back and realize: they did their best. And this makes being critical all the more guilty. Are we any better? (I, for one, don’t want children, so my authority on all things parenting is nil. I was parented so I have a tangential relation to the topic.)
Richard’s father lost their farm in Georgia when Richard was just six years old. And thus began a fantasy of reclaiming a lost land, of approval and validation.
Shepherd is a book worth savoring. Some books you can just breeze through like fast food. Others are worth enjoying every bite. I think you get the idea which camp Shepherd belongs in.