Gertrude Coulter’s matter-of-fact chronicling of her eight decades of life may not have set out to mirror the astounding societal evolution of the 20th century, yet her story does precisely that—from growing up during the Great Depression through her teenage marriage during WWII, all the way to joining the Facebook generation.
Unfortunately, her slim memoir, Dibs and Dabs of My Life, is short on context or even acknowledgement of the societal changes of which she is a part. That feels a shame because hers is a truly remarkable story.
When Coulter’s marriage becomes troubled (she writes of her husband’s cheating and eventual abuse without a hint of victimization), she finds the courage to divorce in the late 1950s and sets out with four young children in tow and no job or money. Then, she takes a bold step that sets the course of her life: “I started Memphis State University when I was 30 years old,” she writes.
As she perseveres, she breaks through the gender walls of the 1960s and ’70s—not in some feminist march but by simply putting one foot in front of the other, striving always for more education and opportunity.
It takes years to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree as she moves from unlicensed teacher to assistant superintendent. It’s an astonishing achievement for anyone, but given the era and the sensibilities of Southern gender roles, it’s nothing short of heroic.
But to deliver a richer memoir, as opposed to simply cataloguing life events, the author needs to give readers more emotional depth and insight to which they can connect. Does she struggle with self-doubt? What motivates her? As a white teacher during the Civil Rights era what did she see and feel? Alas, none of that is included.
Without deeper historical context and keener insights, the memoir will likely have limited appeal for general audiences. Still, those who know the author will treasure the book as written.
Also available as an ebook.