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Memoirist and history lover that I am, I often wonder what it would be like to encapsulate my family history in one book—but I never wonder about it for too long before I deem the task impossible. Both of my parents are from large Minnesota Catholic families. My mother is the youngest of nine and my dad is one of seven brothers. I grew up with the stories of so many branches of families and sub-families that even I have trouble remembering everyone’s histories and how they intersect.
I’ll never forget when, as a college student, I wrote a story based on a real-life family event for a creative writing class. “Way too many characters,” I was told by the instructor. Yep, I thought.
This may explain why I was so excited to learn about fellow Minnesotan Staci Lola Drouillard’s book Seven Aunts, which is a family history centered on biographies of and personal reflections on Drouillard’s seven aunts.
In this beautiful book written with unwavering compassion through a contemporary feminist lens (and a healthy dose of humor), Drouillard has seemingly done the impossible. Through seven chapters that are each devoted to one aunt, Drouillard also tells the story of herself, of her family, of life in working-class Minnesota through the twentieth century, and of the experience that is American womanhood, as examined through the identities of mothers, partners, sisters and daughters.
Who Are the Seven Aunts?
Each chapter of Seven Aunts is dedicated to one aunt: Faye, Lila, Betty and Carol from Drouillard’s mother’s side and Doreen, Gloria and Diane from her father’s side. Their lives are rooted in the early-twentieth-century midwest (particularly northern Minnesota), and their families are German, English, Anishinaabe and French. The aunts live tough lives as they navigate the often impossible expectations placed on women, challenging economies and even more challenging men. Themes of alcoholism, domestic violence, anti-Indigenous racism and more run like rivers through the book’s pages—but so do themes of fierce sisterhood, strong maternal love and unconditional family support.
Each chapter begins with a photograph of the chapter’s aunt and ends with a poem for her. These images and poems serve as anchors to help the reader connect each real-life person to their larger spiritual legacy. Drouillard also employs a practical visual language to help the reader keep track of different parts of the family. As she begins the first chapter: “I like to imagine that my aunties’ stories are like separate rooms inside two different houses. There are seven rooms for seven aunts—four on my mother’s side and three on my dad’s. Each of my auntie’s rooms has at least one door, and they all have windows to let the light in.”
Drouillard uses the imagery of these rooms and their houses to organize each chapter’s story. This metaphor helps the reader keep track of individual aunts and the casts of characters in their lives.
In addition to her unique visual language, Drouillard introduces the reader to her own terms regarding womanhood, specifically as it relates to the patriarchy. These include the “morbidity of motherhood,” which is the belief that life has no meaning if you are not a mother (a serious societal, familial and even internal pressure that affects Drouillard’s aunts throughout the book) and “chronic femininity,” which is the belief that a woman’s role is to be pleasing to the male gaze. In one moment of humorous reflection on her own upbringing, Drouillard asserts that “chronic femininity is more of a mental disorder exacerbated by 1970s sitcoms and Olivia Newton John sing-alongs.”
Drouillard uses these terms to reflect on her aunts’ life experiences throughout the 1900s, yet their relevance to today’s world is impossible to ignore. “Mix the morbidity of motherhood with chronic femininity,” she writes, “and you get big heartache with a fatal dose of low self-esteem.” (Sound familiar?) These broader reflections of the experiences of women in American society were the parts of the book that most resonated with me.
Writing with Compassion
I was drawn to Drouillard’s sensitive and compassionate voice as she writes the biographical information about each aunt with as much thoughtfulness as her own personal reflections. As she writes metaphorically about opening the “windows” to her aunt Faye’s room (i.e., exploring and telling Faye’s story): “…the simple act of opening the shutters is a bit like welcoming in the past—something that takes a little bit of bravery, a little bit of tenderness, and at times, a good dose of careful consideration.”
I also appreciated that Drouillard includes quotes from family members and family letters throughout the book, which helps each aunt come to life with her own voice. And Drouillard takes great care not to assume anything about her subjects. For example, when she writes about her grandmother sending her youngest daughter away for an entire summer, she clarifies, “It’s not my place to speculate the reasons why, but I’m going to give Grandma the benefit of the doubt here.” And when one aunt’s boyfriend brings home the baby he had with another woman for her to raise, Drouillard writes about the biological mother’s relinquishing of her child: “I don’t know the birth mother’s reasoning here, and it would be a misstep to speculate why.”
Drouillard’s sensitive grappling with the real world and its affect on real people sometimes reminded me of the tone of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Readers who enjoyed this previous Feminist Book Club book of the month may find a similarly soothing balm of connection in Drouillard’s exploration of her own family’s history and relationship with American land.
Whose Stories Get To Be Told?
Seven Aunts is a patchwork of stories about places as well as people. This makes the book particularly appealing for Minnesotans like myself, who will likely be familiar with the lakes, towns and roads that hold the stories of this book’s characters.
I did occasionally have trouble keeping track of the grandmothers, great-grandfathers and various family lines that eventually culminate in the life of the author (which is why my college writing professor correctly warned me I had “way too many characters” for my short story). However, following a multitude of characters is just the nature of this kind of literary-historical project. It does take some mental energy to keep track of who’s who, but readers who put in the effort will receive wonderful gems of love and wisdom in return.
I feature historically under-known women in this blog’s Reclaiming the Canon series, so I think a lot about what it is that makes a historical figure “important.” In some ways, the “canon” as a concept is already flawed for the way it puts a select few above the majority. I really appreciated how Seven Aunts honors real women and emphasizes the importance of their stories.
Drouillard puts it perfectly at the end of her Prologue: “Each woman’s story is vital to tell—not because they were famous astronauts, inventors, politicians, or war heroes, but because they had the courage to live in this world at all. And that, for me, is enough.”