Book Review: ‘Goatsong’ by Patricia Damery
Each chapter heading of Patricia Damery’s beautifully written novel Goatsong begins with the words “tell me about.” Sophie’s daughter Stacey is asking her mother to tell her the old and ever-changing family stories about the days she spent as a ten-year-old child with the three Goat Women on Huckleberry Mountain and was reborn into the fullness of the world.
Young Sophie’s single mother works as a waitress at an all-night diner and sleeps all day, sometimes alone and sometimes with the man she brings home: “Ma didn’t want me making noise during the day while she slept, so I left the house and did all kinds of things most kids would not have the opportunity to indulge in, you might say.”
That summer, Sophie meets Nelda, Dee and Ester on the mountain above the Russian River in northern California, and in the process of learning about herding goats, “logging in” garbage dumped alongside the roads, and dancing naked in the meadow, she discovers love and acceptance from her ad hoc surrogate family. Among other things, Sophie learns to see and acknowledge that which others often miss, roadside trash included.
Wise, practical and nurturing, Nelda knows the Goatsong. Strong, persistent and dependable, Dee takes exception to those who dump garbage on the mountain as well as those who won’t lift a hand to stop it. Forever taking notes as the women do their daily errands, the relatively silent Ester is a witness, logging in the garbage. She finds, for example:
“1 beer bottle, label torn and unreadable, green.
1 plastic freezer bag, Safeway, good condition.
1 16 oz. paper cup, 7-11, good condition.”
The three Goat Women, who know they are “undesirables” from the townspeople’s point of view, accept Sophie as one of their own during their daily adventures on a mountain that Damery describes with the prose of a poet. The novel is a hymn to nature and natural living as well as an eternal and memorable story. Original, unorthodox and wise, the Goat Women provide Sophie with an unfettered, practical and loving worldview that is absent at her home and school.
In their own way, the goats (Natalie, Boris and Hornsby) are also Sophie’s teachers. The author, who has run a biodynamic farm in the Napa Valley for the past twelve years with her husband, said on her blog this past summer that “Walking the goats is truly an art.” Damery brings her knowledge of that art into her novel, creating goat characters who are as three dimensional and essential to the story as the women.
In the introduction, Damery writes that “Goatsong is the mysterious combination of humility and that essential ability to climb above, like a goat, or a song. To know the Goatsong of tragedy, Nelda told me, is to be reborn.”
When you read Goatsong, you are breathing in fresh air off the Pacific ocean, smelling the sweet scent of the bay laurel, and cooling your tired feet in sacred streams flowing through old redwoods in the company of wise women who, without agenda, may well change you as they changed the ten-year-old Sophie in those old family stories about the town of Huckleberry on the Russian River.