Book Review: The Understory
Reviewed by Audrey Davis
Solemn, yet stirring—a memoir full of love for life
M. E. Schuman’s inspiring memoir provides not only an inside look at the life of an environmentalist, but a lasting view into the struggle of consequence with the powers that be.
As a girl with the world ahead of her, she begins working with animals and veterinary medicine and then transitions when offered a conservationist position in remote Alaska. Year after year, she was faced with the handed-down issues from new job positions she inherited and strove to complete each project with passion and purpose while balancing family life and relationships on top.
Alaska can be a harsh environment, yet one extremely rich in biodiversity. The author wonderfully describes vivid scenery and landscapes, be it Chile, Australia, Alaska, or Cape Cod, making readers feel present, as if we have gone on her escapes with her. Flora and fauna are described almost intimately and familiarly, as if friends being thoughtfully remembered.
Even when provoked or angered, animals like grizzly bears are acting in self-defense. The author cares for her job and her place in the world, as evidenced by how she treats locals, natives, animals, and plants of all areas she visits.
The author does a breathtaking job of showing how fruitless a job with uncaring superiors can prove.
As a woman trying to carve a place for herself starting around 1982, her position was often overlooked or discounted, and at times she was passed over in favor of a male counterpart for promotion or raise. She describes the ways she and her female cohorts were subjected to and some finally forfeiting from years of harassment.
She mentions the difference in pay throughout her different positions, but perhaps most notably, she exposes environmental injustices that were covered up to either save some government office money or save someone’s reputation.
It is disheartening to hear confirmed that an industry can “minimize the threat from a regulatory agency” by pressuring for budget cuts, or that workers were told to “make the shore look like there was no oil on the rocks” after the largest oil spill in history because the vice president was to make an appearance. As dismaying as these scenes might be, they encourage a sense of pushing for better, and working together toward a common goal of reducing environmental disasters to save the only planet we’ve got.
Through all of her travels, trials, and tribulations, Michelle remains dedicated to herself. Despite pushback she may have faced, she is steadfast in her willingness to seek the truth and roams the world to connect with those she has yet to interact with, experiencing new cultures and customs as they’re presented in context. Most importantly, she remains true to her long-inspired goal of environmentalism, and her actions reflect this as well, leaving the reader with a call-to-action:
“Have we listened to [Mother Earth’s] call?”
Genre: Nonfiction / Nature / Grief
Print Length: 310 pages
Thank you for reading Audrey Davis’s book review of The Understory by M.E. Schuman!