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"Ghostbread makes real for us the shifting homes and unending hunger that shape the life of a girl growing up in poverty during the 1970s. One of seven children brought up by a single mother, Sonja Livingston was raised in areas of western New York that remain relatively hidden from the rest of America. From an old farming town to an Indian reservation to a dead-end urban neighborhood, Livingston and her siblings follow their nonconformist mother from one ramshackle house to another on the perpetual search for something better." "Along the way, the young Sonja observes the harsh realities her family encounters, as well as small moments of transcendent beauty that somehow keep them going. While struggling to make sense of her world, Livingston perceives the stresses and patterns that keep children - girls in particular - trapped in the cycle of poverty." Larger cultural experiences such as her love for Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew and her experiences with the Girl Scouts and Roman Catholicism inform this lyrical memoir. Livingston firmly eschews sentimentality, offering instead a meditation on what it means to hunger and showing that poverty can strengthen the spirit just as surely as it can grind it down.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Exquisite in its details and insights, Ghostbread shows us the invisible undersides of poverty. Sonja Livingston renders this so solidly that we come to understand the roots of despair, and the beauty that can be found in the midst of squalor. In an age when memoir exploits the seamier sides of life, thrusting their authors into the limelight, this book holds back, quietly resisting shock value in favor of understanding."—Judith Kitchen, author of House on Eccles Road

"Ghostbread weaves together a child’s experience of not belonging, the perilous ease of slipping into failure, and the deep love that can flow from even a highly troubled parent. This is rich, sensual storytelling. An amazing debut from a wonderful new writer."—Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire (American Lives)

"’I know where I came from.’ With this declaration, the author of Ghostbread takes us on a journey through a childhood scarred by poverty and graced by love. Like an American version of Angela’s Ashes, the book allows us to encounter—and see, taste, and smell it—through the eyes of a beleaguered and intelligent child. We are grateful to be reminded of the human reality at the heart of a world that is all too often hidden in governmental ‘poverty indicators,’ and also glad that the author has survived to tell the tale."—Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

"[A]n absolutely astonishing debut . . . harrowing and hilarious."—Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls in Trouble

"Livingston reveals the daily challenges poverty-stricken young children face. Her thoughtful testimony sheds new light on a tragic predicament that now affects not only lower-income families, but the entire nation."—Booklist

"Livingston writes with an understated restraint and paints her past in careful detail. The result is captivating. Ghostbread is a heartrending encounter with an adept essayist." —ForeWord

“This moving and inspirational memoir deserves to find the same popularity as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Told in short vignettes, Sonja Livingston shares what it was like to grow up in poverty in the 1970’s. Educators as well as high school students will find many insights about the strength of the individual spirit.”—Judith Repman, University Press Books

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Sonja Livingston has earned a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Award, and Pushcart Prize nomination for her nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in several textbooks on writing, as well as many journals, including the Iowa Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, AGNI, and others. She holds an M.S. Ed. from SUNY Brockport and an MFA from the University of New Orleans. Livingston teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.
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Table of Contents

part one: the get go
part two: dead end days
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 26, 2010

    Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston

    This memoir brings a new dimension to the genre. It opens giant doorways to understanding children who are raised in poverty and neglect and their chances for survival. The author paints pictures of heartbreaking events that the reader can digest in small, delicate doses. There is much to be learned by listening to the voice of the child and the heart of the woman.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This book fed me well

    With lyrical beauty, Sonja Livingston's Ghostbread describes growing up with a flighty mother and a slew of brothers and sisters in upstate New York. While the book deals with Livingston's struggles with poverty and an emotionally imbalanced mother, it is more about celebration than sadness. It is about a diverse cast of characters who inform and feed young Sonja, each in their own ways. It is about the wonder and magic and mystery of childhood, about the little moments that can be so poignant in retrospect, and about the things that people have when they don't have much.

    I loved the way Livingston fed me her life in bite-sized morsels, each short chapter giving me the taste of a new thought or image. At times funny, at times bittersweet, it was always compelling, and all-in-all a beautiful and satisfying book.

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  • Posted December 18, 2009


    Sonja Livingston's Ghostbread bears witness to the experience of childhood poverty and seeks, in its understated epilogue, to make sense of why some may escape while others do not.

    This memoir is divided up into 122 very short chapters, each only 1-2 pages, and each able to hold its own as a bit of flash nonfiction. This form lends itself equally well to sporadic sampling or an all-night reading-fest.

    But what I enjoy most about this memoir is the poetic grace of Livingston's phrases and descriptions. You can turn to any page, pick any random sentence, and discover something to admire. For example, Livingston writes that, in her childhood church, "candles glowed and smelled like rain as they melted. The balsam of sacramental oils mixed with the sad scent of prayers trapped and beating against the rafters. The windows leaked light..." Wow. And she skillfully and quietly characterizes her own mother through her love of birds: "That she was in love with all things winged was perhaps the most solid thing to be said about her."

    I'm planning on teaching from this book in my future creative writing classes. It was an incredible and unforgettable read!

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  • Posted December 10, 2009

    Ghostbread gets it right

    Writing about a deprived childhood is tricky. Too stoic, and the reader fails to engage. Too emotional and the reader smells self-pity. So the fact that Sonja Livingston is able to punch right through the shame and ache and hunger to the truth of such a childhood marks her as an emotionally smart and technically gifted writer. Livingston is even-handed in her depictions. She celebrates the good times, the strengths of her family members, and turns an observant child's eye on the hard times. For those who have lived through similar experiences, Livingston's descriptions of her early understanding of what it means to be poor-- "I looked into the black interior of the purse and began to see its emptiness as a weight to be carried"--will resonate. She gives a white-hot treatment of the effects of a childhood plagued by physical and emotional hunger and manages to capture, exactly, the child's view and wrap it in wise prose: "I worried about my hunger, that he might sense it in me, that I might forget myself and eat whatever he offered," and, "...the hungry always return to the very same hand. The hand they know. The one that cannot give." This is a book that will enlighten, will sensitize. With its thoughtful observations rendered in beautiful prose, Ghostbread is an important contribution to a problem America is often unwilling to admit it has: the widespread presence of families and children trapped, through no fault of its own, in a permanent underclass.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

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