Williamson lasers-in with witty hindsight on the ways she occupied her time as a “boomerang” kid.
At a CrossroadsPublisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Subtitle: Between a Rock and My Parents’ Place
Author: Kate T. Williamson
US publication date: 2008-05
Who hasn’t received Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as a graduation present? Dr. Seuss’ picture book illustrates the vast possibilities that supposedly await those moving on to the next phase of their lives. But I can’t imagine many college seniors finding the book’s refrain of “Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed" very inspiring, considering the instability of the job market.
Perhaps Kate T. Williamson’s At a Crossroads will be the book that will be gifted to this generation of graduates: a wry and whimsical look at what might come after tossing tassels in the air -- moving back home.
Williamson has previously published A Year in Japan, a visual meditation on Japanese culture created during the author’s year-long visit. The "crashing back to reality once that trip ends" -- graduating from Harvard with no direction or job prospects -- is what Williamson chronicles in her latest book. The cover image aptly portrays her predicament: face down in the plush carpet in her childhood bedroom, completely adrift, but comfortably so. This is why what was supposed to be a three-month stopover at her parents' house becomes a nearly two-year stay.
Her parents’ home in Pennsylvania becomes a refuge from facing an uncertain future, and she turns her artist’s eye towards capturing the details of returning there to live as an adult. As I read through the humorous anecdotes of her accidentally enrolling in a children’s ballet class and wearing her father’s lederhosen to a baseball game, I wasn’t sure if these memories were worth depicting in so vividly.
But she won me over on the second read when, since I already read the story, I concentrated on the visuals -- which were often stunning. This book would not work if Williamson was not an amazing artist. A Year in Japan is gorgeous in an anthropological way, with Williamson drawing images of geisha girls and bento boxes as a way of trying to better understand Japanese culture. In this book, she’s in all too familiar territory, which enables her to laser in with witty hindsight on the ways she occupied her time as a “boomerang” kid.
The book is divided into small vignettes of her experiences, flowing elegantly from season to season. She notices and immortalizes the things others would probably ignore; the tiniest details, like the kind of wallpaper print on her bathroom wall or a napkin on the ground, are all a part of her story. And yes, it’s a very slight story of how she returns to her parents, who lovingly accept her back, and with whom she bonds with by going on picnics and playing board games. She encounters loud squirrels, takes roller skating lessons, and is ecstatic to spend her birthday at a Hall and Oates concert with her mom.
Sometimes it can almost get too quirky (her dad is really in a barbershop chorus?) But Williamson also details her despair in an effectively understated way. She communicates her increasing isolation each time she depicts herself nodding gamely while hearing about her high school friends’ fabulous careers or her parents’ advice on a career path. The most overt instance is when she attends a party in New York City, only to end up falling asleep on a bed covered in coats while the party is still raging. The longer she stays at home, the more she feels out of step with the rest of the world.
The one ambition that keeps her going is working on a book (which became A Year in Japan). But curious neighbors and relatives can’t help asking her if she has anything else going on. She hits upon answering the “what are you doing now that you’ve graduated” question by answering that she's “at a crossroads”. But even this catch-all statement doesn’t keep her insecurities at bay.
She captures the uncertainty of her life in a moving set of images towards the end of the book. Williamson has just attended a cousin’s Renaissance-themed wedding (for which she made a custom chain-mail belt), and depicts the event in wonderful shades of green, conveying the cheer and warmth of the ceremony. On the next page, she has a sinking realization: she was the “only member of her extended family above the age of eight who did not have a car, cell phone, or significant other.” These words are superimposed over a picture of an airplane flying over icy mountain tops.
The next image is Williamson walking her dog by on an empty stretch of sidewalk, no text. It’s a quiet moment in a novel furious with activity, but perfectly conveys the instant when a person comes to the realization that he or she needs to figure out what to do next.