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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

4.2 9
by Terry Tempest Williams

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The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates

Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.”

Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional


The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates

Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.”

Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.  

“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’s mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?”


Editorial Reviews

"I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone." What author Terry Tempest Williams (Crossing to Safety; Refuge) found in those three bookshelves of beautifully-bound journals would dramatically reshape her own life. When Women Were Birds unfolds its inspiriting lessons in fifty-four self-contained chapters.

Sallye Leventhal

Publishers Weekly
Williams, the sensitive author of Refuge, is shocked to discover her deceased mother’s unwritten memoirs—shelves worth of blank pages. Under such unpromising circumstances commences a kaleidoscopic celebration and palimpsest—all metaphorical clichés but apt—on finding a voice and woman’s identity beyond the silenced, selfless existence informed by children and a husband—even a family brimming with love. The empty pages of a journal manifest a hermeneutics of suspicion: the white upon which to project a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In 54 meditations (one for each year of her mother’s life, and of Williams’s life to date), we learn about an unusual (patriarchal) Mormon background and an upbringing that included a season of homeschooling in Hawaii, encounters with a husband-and-wife team of John Birchers while teaching high school biology , a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the meeting of her future mate over a discussion of books and birds. Among deep influences are Nobel Peace Prize–winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai; Hélène Cixous; Clarice Lispector; the secret-women’s language of China, Nüshu; and the soaring operas of Richard Strauss. “If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently,” Williams declares in her bighearted, deliberative hymn: old themes newly warbled. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
An elegiac exploration of nature, creativity and Mormon female family relationships. After her mother's death from cancer, Williams (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, 2008, etc.) discovered that the journals she had left behind did not contain what she expected. This prompted the author to conduct a reflective search. In numbered sections of varying lengths, memories intersperse with mentions of the journals, whose "harmony of silence" haunt her as a poetic refrain. Williams recalls her bird-watching grandmother, Mimi, her mother's originality, and events that would guide her toward becoming a writer and a naturalist. Declaring that "Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives," Williams considers the work of, among others, Gustave Courbet, Robert Walser, John Cage and Wangari Maathai ("People like Wangari don't die, that's how irretractable and resilient she was to me"); music and birdsong; poetry; creation myths; birth; personal accounts of marriage and work; and the importance of empowerment both as a woman and as a wildlife advocate. She draws intelligent connections between varied subjects, with emphasis on voice and silence and how the two richly inform one's inner life. Over the course of several decades, the ability "to speak through our vulnerability with strength" became a hard-won realization. A graceful examination of how grief inspires a writer to merge private and public interests.
From the Publisher

“Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions....As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it become a full-fledged aria.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“This poetic memoir continues the work Williams began in Refuge....Williams explores her mother's identity--woman, wife, mother, and Mormon--as she continues to honor her memory....A lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.” —The Boston Globe

“Williams is the kind of writer who makes a reader feel that [her] voice might also, one day, be heard….She cancels out isolation: Connections are woven as you sit in your chair reading---between you and the place you live, between you and other readers, you and the writer. Without knowing how it happened, your sense of home is deepened.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Daily Beast

“Time, experience, and uncanny coincidence spiral through these pages….When Women Were Birds is an extraordinary echo chamber in which lessons about voice--passed along from mother, to daughter, and now to us--will reverberate differently in each inner ear.” —The Seattle Times

“A beautiful, powerful, important book….Nothing I've ever read has done this to me. Is this what religious people feel when they pray, I wonder? ...Terry Tempest Williams has written something that has revealed me and affirmed me and changed me. In sharing her voice, she has summoned mine.” —Rebecca Joines Schinsky, Book Riot

“In some ways When Women Were Birds functions as a detective story, an attempt to solve a mystery. But it's also a realization that often there are no answers…there's only the present.” —The Salt Lake Tribune

“A lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading--a rare thing.” —The Huffington Post

“At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Terry Tempest Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374288976


I AM FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OLD, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother's tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in thesame way she was living, consciously.

"I am leaving you all my journals," she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. "But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone."

I gave her my word. And then she told me where theywere. I didn't know my mother kept journals.

A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth--shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank.

WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS Copyright 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams


Excerpted from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams Copyright © 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Leap, An Unspoken Hunger, Refuge, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.

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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so wonderful. I took a looooooong time to read it because it was so thought-provoking and exquisitely written. You can leave it on your nightstand to read and savor when you have time. And, mark it up (mine is peppered with post-its and lightly penciled notes)! In sharing her story, Terry Tempest Williams invites one to think on a deeper level and to quietly examine one's own life journey as well as that of the natural world. I will keep this book forever. I have not loaned my copy to anyone, instead I have purchased it for friends to experience themselves.
Jane_Ramsey More than 1 year ago
I took this book to the beach with me and was mesmerized by the beautiful versing and how well woven the threads are that hold this book together. Terry Tempest Williams is a very insightful writer. I recommend this book to any woman seeking to find her voice and let it be heard.
tetonvalleyreader More than 1 year ago
A short book but full of poignant insight into the Clan of One Breasted Women. Even more than that, a glimpse of educated, indepentant Morman women strugling to remain true to their faith, their families and most importantly to themselves. Surprises start from the begining and make your heart ache along with Terry's longing to understand a mother who cannot answer. A Teton Valley, Idaho fan
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the musings, even the commentaries. I learned quite a bit. The musings gave me much food for thought. I anticipate great discussion at book club.
LosAngelesDan More than 1 year ago
I'm glad I ordered it. Got both hard copy and e-book. Good premis and well written.
karatepen More than 1 year ago
it was highly recommended by people I respect and I attempted to return to it 3 times.Whatever I read, was nicely written,I found the protagonist story (I assume it was autobiographical), uninteresting,mildly insightful and the journey itself,as well as the narrative didn't hold my interest.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not even finish this book. I am an avid reader and found the book to be horrible.