A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In
It’s not often that I find the words “Hometown: Carlisle, PA” when I’m looking through the catalogs of future releases from the publishers when I’m doing the buying for the bookstore. When I do, it’s usually for a local history book, rarely is it for a knockout memoir. But why do I care about Carlisle? It’s my home town!
From the Back Cover of the ARC:
In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Phuc Tran along with his family immigrate to America. They land in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the Trans struggle to assimilate. In this coming-of-age memoir told through the themes of great book such as The Metamorphosis, The Scarlet Letter, The Illiad, and more, Tran navigates the push and pull of finding and accepting himself despite the challenges of immigration, feelings of isolation, teenage rebellion, and assimilation, all while attempting to meet the rigid expectations set by his parents.
Against the hairspray-and-synthesizer backdrop of the ’80s, Tran finds solace and kinship in the wisdom of classic literature, and in the subculture of punk rock, he finds affirmation and echoes of his disaffection. In this journey for self-discovery Tran ultimately finds refuge and inspiration in the art that shapes – and ultimately saves – him.
Nestled in the Susqehanna Valley town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Carlisle Senior High School sprawled as a monolithic mid-century modern block types: archetypes and stereotypes…
I was born in Carlisle in the late 1980s, when Phuc was a student at Carlisle Senior High School and my mother was a teacher at said high school. I spent the first few years of my life there before moving to another small, central Pennsylvania town, but Carlisle is my father’s hometown and his family never left. He returned to it’s picturesque countryside, his wood shop nestled in it’s run-down gridded streets, in the early aughts.
A few times a year I drive the two hours from the Philadelphia suburbs back to the town of my childhood to see my dad, go to the dentist, have my car inspected, and stop by my favorite places in town – the diner, Scalles; the indie bookshop of my youth, Whistlestop Bookshop; and the Kline Center of Dickinson College where my mom played basketball as a co-ed and where I still get to use the pool, the same one she took me to as a small child.
The town has changed a great deal in the last decade and a half since I got my driver’s license and could drive myself through it’s streets, visiting my dad and family, and it’s been nice to see it’s renaissance (there’s a brewery now!) and how it’s reinventing itself. Even though I spent my school years in Gettysburg (and desperately wanted out), I was still a Carlisle girl at heart and it brings joy to my heart to see the town diversify more and more, albeit at a snail’s pace. But despite my father’s requests, I was never moving back to central PA after college in Pittsburgh. The overwhelming desire to “get out” of small town central PA was essential to me, and to Phuc.
We were supposed to host Phuc at the bookstore in early May and, unfortunately, that is no longer happening for obvious reasons. Shortly after I started reading my advance copy of Sigh, Gone, I emailed our rep telling her how much I was enjoying it (it’s my favorite memoir, tied with Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do) and what I needed to do to potentially secure a signed copy. Low and behold, next thing I knew I was putting together an author visit.
There were many events that I was disappointed to have to cancel at the store, but this one hurt my heart the most. I love being able to find books that might not show up on everyone’s radar, and feature them at the store. It’s even better when I get to meet or host the author of said book that I admire. I love, even more, getting a different perspective on a town I know so well, but experienced so differently.
I always love getting multiple perspectives on the same time in history, especially microhistories, in this case, Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Phuc was in high school and my parents in their twenties, not too far apart. But the Carlisle experience of my parents was very different than the Carlisle Phuc’s family experienced. I’m a middle class white girl who’s family was well known and well liked in town – both through my mother’s role in the school district and my father’s woodworking business. To be able to read Phuc’s memoir and visualize exactly where he was in Carlisle on each page but to find his experiences so different to mine growing up in small town PA just made me step back and ponder how people could be so cruel. To the everyday circumstances, I could overwhelmingly relate – from my mother having cancer when I was a child, to getting into my top choice college and not being able to go for financial reasons, I found solace in the Clash as a teenager and tried my hand a skateboarding, I thought Tony Hawk and the Dogtown boys were the ultimate rebellious athletes. I often thought I would have fit in just fine with Gen X.
The Carlisle I knew growing up had problems, problems that I knew about as a kid and darker ones that I learned about as an adult. Like most other small towns in central Pennsylvania, racism is entrenched and pervasive (I still see countless confederate flags flying) and college is the only way out, other than the military. Most of the small towns are incredibly conservative and there is a oppressive patriarchy dictating what is socially acceptable.
Despite the cruelties of life, family, and circumstance, Sigh, Gone is filled with great hope and spectacular writing. Arranged chronologically, each chapter covers roughly a year and is framed by the great work of classic literature for which the chapter is named. I flew through every page, getting more and more entrenched in my own unique reading experience (and searching for my mom’s name on every page while Phuc is in high school!). I hope that we can still hold an event in some way with Phuc this spring, and at the very least hope to have him in the store for the paperback release in the spring!
Rating: 10 out of 10