A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a book that shouldn’t work. Chapter titles that range from “Dogs” and “Kalahari” to “Research” and “80” along with the seeming randomness with which each chapter is placed—nothing is chronological—suggest a hodgepodge of a book that touches on everything but focuses on nothing.
Consider all that is covered. In the chapter “Cats”, we find Marshall Thomas’ philosophy on dogs: “From Mishka and Taffy [her two childhood dogs], I saw that dogs and people were alike, just with different kinds of bodies, and never since then have I questioned the commonality of people and other animals.” After two chapters about some of Marshall Thomas’ travels, we dash through college, courtship, and mother-in-laws. We learn Marshall Thomas’ mother-in-law hated her—not in the chapter titled “Marriage” but in the chapter before. And also in typical Marshall Thomas fashion, the chapter on marriage is about a lot more than her marriage: “I was no longer Liz Marshall, wild and free, but the indentured Mrs. Stephen Thomas. None of this was Steve’s fault, or my parents’ fault or even my fault. It was the culture of the time and not a good culture for women.”
Then it’s time spent in Uganda and Nigeria before a look at how America and Americans viewed alcohol consumption in the mid-20th century and Marshall Thomas’ struggle with alcoholism. Later chapters cover her daughter’s accident and the resulting paralysis and activism (in particular Marshall Thomas’ daughter was instrumental in changing public transportation and making it wheelchair accessible).
Just when we think there might be a pattern to this zigzagging narrative that crosses continents and decades effortlessly (often just in a sentence) and moves from the personal to the cultural seamlessly, Marshall Thomas bring in chapters on her research and writing processes. The book then winds down with the title chapter “A Million Years with You”, which discusses her father’s death, her relationship with her mother, and her mother’s death. The final chapter, which is simply titled “80”, looks not only at Marshall’s age but society’s views on age and aging.
All this results in a rich, honest, chaotic book, and by the end, even the organizational style makes a strange kind of sense. It’s Marshall Thomas’ life—as she chooses to tell it:
“An autobiography should say what the author wants to say, so the advice of others should be ignored. My mother’s fans, for instance, thought I should write about her, my father’s fans thought I should write about him, and my brother’s fans thought I should devote at least a chapter to his accomplishments. But I had enough trouble getting my own life sorted out. Nor did I take the advice of a friend in the publishing industry who thought I should include my ‘sexual development,’ as he put it. Why did he think so? Because sex and violence sell books.”
And while she may not have followed others’ advice, her family—particularly her children and parents—are an important part of the book.
Marshall Thomas notes that it’s often the little things that have a lasting impact and one of the final stories she tells about her father illustrates this well. After her father dies, it’s a simple conversation Marshall Thomas chooses to remember:
“It was he who first told me that our bodies contain molecules that could have been in dinosaurs, and that after we die, those molecules would go to other life forms. So after he said he’d like to live a million years with me, he added, ‘Who knows? Maybe we’ve done that already.’ That seemed altogether likely, and I expect the process will continue. The thought gives me great peace.”
Even as a child, Marshall Thomas recognized the significance of what she calls “tiny things”. She talks about “the attention to the tiny paid by the Bushmen” when one woman took the time pick individual “shreds” of tobacco out of the sand. Later she notes “Other people tend to pay attention to the big things, and might see the tobacco as one handful rather than as a collection of grains. But it’s the sum of all the tiny things that informs you…”
And the tiny things are part of what make the book make sense. The order may be (okay, is) somewhat random (Marshall Thomas thought a sequential structure would plod “along like the ant who carried a grain of wheat”), so the themes are what unify the book. The tiny things, Marshall Thomas’ determination to live in the moment (perhaps best showcased when she quit a good job to write full time), and her unique way of finding connections no one else would: “I came to compare the South West African whites to New Hampshire hurricanes. We have hurricanes, but not all the time, and unpleasant as they are, when we’ve cleaned up after one of them we can forget them for a while.” These themes (and a few others) take all the pieces and make them a whole.
In a book that covers so much, some chapters will appeal to readers more than others. In fact, Marshall Thomas gives readers permission to skip certain chapters: “Yet ever since I began to write again… writing has been my life, as important to me as my family. So the next part of this book is about words, sentences, and paragraphs, and if you, the reader, are bored by such things, you can safely skip to Chapter 16 if you like, to read the last two chapters…” I wouldn’t recommend it though—there’s something to learn in every chapter, and Marshall Thomas’ honest and forthright style, her often dry wit, and her unique ability to find connections where most would find none make reading this book time well spent.