Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir
By Sarah Gorham
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017, 208 pp., $24.95, hardcover
By their presence, mountains are the enormous proof of our ephemeral lives. They dash minor ambition and ridicule complacency. They pull us up short and force a high level of achievement, a promise of physical duress and spiritual euphoria.
A mountain feeling was planted in my subconscious at fifteen, and it served nicely to counterpoint the practical education I received at slightly lower elevations in manmade houses and huts.
In four sentences, the poet and essayist Sarah Gorham evokes one psychic condition she explores in her memoir, Alpine Apprentice. Two teenage years spent at an international, Swiss boarding school (1969 – 1971) occasion the book, a heady mixture of lyricism, research, and self-reflection. Gorham juxtaposes brief, flash-fiction-like passages (on potatoes, meringue, and "bound meat"—herbed, dried beef shoulder) with meditations on adolescent psychology, avalanches, cultural geography, language acquisition, and progressive education. "I’ve been dreaming Switzerland for more than forty years. The landscape has dominated my subconscious since 1971, when I took my last flight out of Zurich as a teenager." Gorham proves an excellent guide to memory’s mysteries and the ways a gifted writer shapes lived experience into emotionally resonant art.
A colloquial, informed voice belies complex craft decisions, and Gorham’s literary nonfiction includes formal surprises. She gives readers a teenager’s lengthy list of Swiss-German profanities; she recounts Sherlock Holmes’s death at Reichenbach Falls; paired essays ("How to Get There" and "How to Return") bookend the text with contrasts, lessons, and losses. Another pair of essays— "The Twin Cities: Heimweh" and "The Twin Cities: Sehnsucht" offer delightful meditations on untranslatable Swiss-German words for "homesickness" and "nostalgia." This variety in subject and tone mirrors the mind’s meanderings and sense-making. Below, Gorham reflects on learning Swiss-German as an adolescent, yoking past and present:
The experts might say it’s better to master one tongue at a time. Forget modern dance till you’ve mastered ballet. Don’t improvise until you can read music. But when you’re tugged in two directions, as any adolescent is—Am I child or adult? Follower or leader? Bad girl or good? —the choice is not so simple. The miracle of Swiss versus High German is that you can have it both ways. You can flip from one kind of person to another. You can hang with your homies and please your teachers.
Living together in school "families," teachers and students at Ecole d’Humanité cook, clean, design academics, arts, and athletics, and govern themselves. Here’s Gorham reflecting on teenage risk-taking: "Unfortunately, the management area of the brain—the prefrontal cortex, responsible for making decisions and solving problems—is notoriously underdeveloped in adolescents." Here’s Gorham on a beloved teacher: "Somewhere in every grown-up there’s a scintilla of frivolousness, even unsafe behavior. We’d seen her cruel and certainly a little drunk. What did she dream about? Did she ever fumble or stutter? Was she ever untrue, misguided, reckless?"
I particularly appreciate Gorham’s multidimensional approach to writing about a tragic accident that reshapes the community. She brings in the science of avalanche conditions and the elements of chance and human frailty. With compassion for all involved, Gorham offers a moving, nuanced account.
Visuals add to the book’s riches. Gorham seeds the text with reproductions of typed letters (the author’s and her mother’s); handwritten, German vocabulary words; and photographs of the school’s founders with students. Early on, Gorham describes Edith and Paul Geheeb who, in 1934, fled Germany, moving the school to Switzerland. Along with the school’s history and educational philosophy, she also tells her own (rebellious girl’s) story. To do so, Gorham must interweave individual and community, revealing strengths and fault lines in this semi-utopia.
While I generally reserve this column for reviewing books of poems, I found myself drawn to re-reading this book as I would a book of poems. Alpine Apprentice, transporting readers to a mountain community in Bernese-Oberland, will refresh a hot summer’s day.
Sarah Gorham—poet, essayist, and publisher— lives in Prospect, Kentucky. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Bad Daughter (2011); The Cure (2003); The Tension Zone (1996); and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (1989). Her essay collection A Study in Perfect won the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2013. With Jeffrey Skinner, she co-edited the anthology Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance (1997). In 1994, Gorham founded Sarabande Books and serves as its president and editor-in-chief.
Robin Becker’s Field Notes column is a regular feature of Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as poetry and contributing editor. Her most recent collection of poems is Tiger Heron (2014). Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Becker served as the Penn State Laureate in 2010 – 2011. Most recently, her poems appeared in the American Poetry Review and the New Yorker. Becker’s new collection of poems, WORDS with FRIENDS, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018.