Little A/TOPPLE Books/2020 /267 pp. /14.95
Reviewed by JoAnne E. Lehman
Melissa Faliveno’s essay collection draws a compelling portrait of a place—the U.S. Midwest and southwestern Wisconsin in particular—and its geology, weather, and people. It also functions as a memoir—even though it never claims to be that—of the author’s search for personal identity, with a nod to a major facet of that identity in the book’s title. Tomboyland also looks Big Questions in the face without flinching, even as it declares they cannot neatly be answered. It does this in eight essays, most of them running to more than thirty pages, any of them capable of standing alone (as some have, in such prestigious journals as Prairie Schooner), none of them bogged down by a tedious phrase or an extraneous word. I’ve defaced my copy by underlining passages to return to and savor, lyrical lines to copy out longhand.
Weather grounds this collection at both ends—an F5 tornado opens the first essay (“The Finger of God”), a drought the final one (“Driftless”). “In the Midwest, people talk about the weather,” Faliveno acknowledges early on, but she doesn’t make a joke of that; nor, presumably, would anyone near Barneveld, Wisconsin, the village hit directly by that F5 in 1984. Faliveno doesn’t remember it herself—she was only a year old—and her town, Mt. Horeb, just a few miles away, was not in the tornado’s path, though her mother could see it as she held the baby at the window before heading for shelter in their basement. But Faliveno grew up with the story, as well as with the understanding, deep in her core, that a tornado—“this deadly miracle, this unpredictable and awe-inspiring act of nature, this mechanism of fate, this impossible act of God”—could happen anytime and change everything. In this opening essay she tells local history via immersive interviews with tornado survivors thirty-five years after the event, braiding in meteorology, movie critique, and memories of her youthful religious fervor; she concludes with an eloquent definition of fear.
In “Tomboy,” the essay whose title echoes that of the book, Faliveno ponders her own gender and sexuality. “My body is androgynous,” she tells us, though “I’ve always checked the ‘Female’ box on applications”; and “I’m not straight,” though her current, longtime partner is a man. She struggles with large questions here about gender expectations, sexual harassment, and the meanings of womanhood and queerness. She doesn’t figure it all out, but she declares she will “travel down this dark path of unknowing” and “stay awhile in this otherworld, this in-between, this mystery, this ephemeral space of body and language and identity—and just try to be alive here.” Those questions and more are also taken up in “Switch-Hitter,” in which she reflects on her teenage athleticism and high-school crush on her softball coach, her immersion in college drinking culture and assault by a football player, her eventual recognition of mental health challenges and willingness to seek therapy, and her discovery of roller derby, a “new sport, made by women for women, a community that would eventually expand its language to include trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer skaters.”
Another essay braids experiences of BDSM and non-monogamy with family food history and an ambivalent vegetarian identity. In still another, Faliveno grapples with gun culture and honestly appraises her own violent impulses. No easy answers here, either: “It’s complicated for me to love people who love guns,” she admits; she also sees the complicating factors of gender and racial privilege in questions of gun ownership.
In “Motherland,” Faliveno tackles the sprawling and many-layered question of whether or not one—particularly if one is a woman in our culture—wants to have children. She is pretty sure she doesn’t, but that’s not an easy decision either, especially with a partner she knows would like to, though he insists he’s okay not doing so. “It’s a conversation we continue to have,” she says, “a question that has no conclusion.” In this piece especially, I think Faliveno demonstrates the essence of essaying, though she also displays it throughout the collection. Writer David McGlynn has said of essays that they are, “by nature, tentative endeavors: investigations freed from the obligations of making firm moral pronouncements. They are permitted to wander, to loaf, to puzzle over great questions but to ultimately refrain from having to answer them.” Though McGlynn’s definition seems to hint at a somewhat unfavorable view of the essay, it does point out the significance of that form’s questioning, exploring, conclusion-resisting quality, which Faliveno employs with exquisite skill and art. Even more, I think, she beautifully manifests what the poet Rilke called “living the questions.” She certainly doesn’t “loaf,” nor does she “refrain from having to answer” those great questions. In every essay she deeply, fully engages with them, head-on, in all their rawness and discomfort, even their great pain. She just won’t settle for facile answers, or anything that’s less than honest and real.
"Driftless,” the closing essay in Tomboyland, is a poetic tribute to what Faliveno calls “the landscape that made me,” though it’s a landscape she eventually leaves for a life in New York. That landscape’s name—the Driftless Area of Wisconsin—includes a term that refers to the region’s special geological history, a word that, to the author, “suggests stagnancy, stillness, something that remains, but at the same time feels like something moving. A simultaneous leaving and staying.”
For years I’ve returned to this word, turning it over on my tongue. I try to crack it
open, inspect its incongruities, make sense of its contradictions. I try to solve the
puzzle of it. I try to hold it, keep it still in my hands, but every time I think I’ve
grasped it, held it tight in my fist, it slips through my fingers like sand.
The big questions Faliveno tries to solve in Tomboyland, like the puzzle of the word “driftless,” may not have solutions she can keep still in her hands, hold tight in her fist; indeed, answers may slip through her fingers like sand. But in the very puzzling of the questions, she traces beauty and deep meaning and affirms life, love, family, and a sense of home.
 David McGlynn, “The Barking Cat: Converting an Essay Collection into a Memoir,” Essay Daily, October 28, 2013.
JoAnne E. Lehman edits a review of gender studies resources at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned her MFA in creative writing (creative nonfiction) at Spalding University.