The unfurling frond rebecca beardsall book review
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STARRED Book Review: The Unfurling Frond

THE UNFURLING FROND by Rebecca Beardsall is an inventive memoir that explores the search for identity and place. Check out more of what Erin Britton has to say in her starred book review of this Atmosphere Press book.

The Unfurling Frond

by Rebecca Beardsall

Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir

ISBN: 9781639889556

Print Length: 254 pages

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Reviewed by Erin Britton

An inventive memoir that explores the search for identity and place

A memoir comprised of essays, vignettes, poems, photographs, and experimental forms, Rebecca Beardsall’s The Unfurling Frond is by turns poignant and hilarious, deep and frivolous, as it chronicles key episodes from her life—whether or not they initially appear to be so.   

The central theme of seeking (for someone, something, somewhere) is established from the outset through “Blank Slate/White Bag,” the essay that forms the prologue to The Unfurling Frond. Here, Beardsall draws on a pivotal moment from the twelfth grade, when each member of her art class is asked “to illustrate a bag that would represent a product that said something about ourselves.”

Initially, Beardsall sits at her desk, “looking at the blank bag, feeling blank,” but later that day, inspired by a magazine ad for Ralph Lauren’s “Lauren” perfume, she hits upon the idea of her own eponymous fragrance, one that truly captures her essence. Of course, such a perfume can’t possibly be called “Becky.”

“My name didn’t hold the same elegance of the bottle. Becky made it look like the ever-cheerful Bonnie Bell – most certainly not the caliber of Lauren. It also didn’t have the same movement as a wave. No flow. No elegance. No mystery like the sea.”

Once she recognizes that a change has to be made, the answer seems simple: “Rebecca. The white-bag project started the movement towards reclaiming my name.” What’s more, while Beardsall doesn’t know it at the time, this realization launches her on what is to become a lifelong journey toward finding her true self and where she fits in the world, a journey that will span continents and entail considerable emotional upheaval. 

Along the way, amid the many highs, Beardsall encounters her fair share of tragedy. The death of her brother, Dwayne, in a farming accident at the age of just twenty-five is discussed in the essays “May 25, 1991” and “Vision to Venture,” poignantly marking the fact that “of the three of Bob and Marilyn Helm’s children, I will be the only one to traverse the world.” Despite his premature passing, Dwayne continues to have an immense impact on both Beardsall’s life and her creative work.

And in terms of travel, venture she certainly does. In The Unfurling Frond, Beardsall chronicles her movement through both time and space, as she travels from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, via Ontario, Canada; Dumbarton, Scotland; Flathead Lake, Montana and many more besides; to Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Bellingham, Washington, all the while traversing through different versions of herself. “It wasn’t a vision that caused me to venture; it was a life lost in an instant that spurred me to move on and into myself.”

She also meets various people who will have a profound impact on her life. In “I Thee Wed… And With It I Bestow All of the Treasures,” Beardsall describes her wedding to Geoff, the rather older New Zealander whom she relies on to help her navigate life in Auckland. The fact that she met Geoff online marks a clear departure from the Mennonite approaches to love and marriage she grew up with, and so their relationship represents another important step on her journey to becoming her true self, not the self she is expected to display.

Life in New Zealand also adds another dimension to Beardsall’s identity: writer. She begins her new career—the first she has had that is entirely her own—writing for magazines and it takes off from there, accompanying her as she moves between countries and from city to town. Her writing and journaling eventually gives rise to The Unfurling Frond, which comprises an amalgamation of everything that has gone before.

Beardsall has a gift for recapturing elusive memories and drawing out everything they might contain and imply. In her own words, she lingers “in the odd, mistrusted places of time – the spaces no one wants to talk about or recognize, let alone be seen lurking in its corners,” which leaves her uniquely placed to mine the great reserves of her past and piece together the evolving picture of herself. In so doing, she gives considerable thought to the vexed issue of place and the sometimes fine line between becoming and colonizing.

Rich in love for both people and place, The Unfurling Frond is an insightful exploration of the self, with Beardsall elucidating both the formation of her own self and the impacts she has had on the selves of others. Whether describing major events or minor details, she does so with verse and insight, ultimately forming a memoir of unusual format and exceptional impact.

Thank you for reading Erin Britton’s book review of The Unfurling Frond by Rebecca Beardsall! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.

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