“The communal voice is not intended to presume upon the memories and experiences of others,” reads the disclaimer on Cinderland’s copyright page, “but to reflect the shared nature of the event itself, as the author remembers it.” Thus begins Amy Jo Burns’ memoir. It is a harrowing sketch of growing up in the overwhelming agony and infrequent ecstasy of Mercury, Pennsylvania—the pseudonym for a small, rustbelt town, which Burns describes as “an Appalachian Miss Havisham, tattered and waiting for someone who would never show.” The monotony of Mercury’s decline is shattered, though, when seven girls accuse a middle school teacher—Mr. Lotte—of molesting them during piano lessons in his home.
While Burns was also a victim, she stays silent, unlike the other seven, and her guilt echoes through the rest of her childhood. She dedicates the book to the seven and “to all the others too.” Mr. Lotte casts a shadow on every page, and Burns is a master at depicting her choices and actions in a way that silently alludes to the molestation without hitting her reader over the head. When Burns makes decisions about her friends, her romantic relationships, her extracurricular activities, and her college choice, Mr. Lotte is standing over her shoulder, and it’s terrifying.
Equally terrifying is the figure over her other shoulder: Mercury itself. Burns describes the town as a place full of “mundane items that are often mislabeled as antiques” and where “innocence is the small-town girl’s currency.” Burns’ ability to transfer Mercury to the page is fantastic and spot on, bringing to mind other great small-town portrayals like Karen Valby’s Welcome to Utopia and David Connerley Nahm’s recent Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky. Mercury is very much a character in this book, and while Burns occasionally feels like a part of the town, most of the time the town is an oppressive, separate force that silently judges every move she makes, a place where complicity and complacency go hand in hand. Mercury imposes silence on the girls who don’t come forward and punishes the girls who do, blaming the victims for shattering the town’s sleepy facade. Burns gives Mercury a voice through letters to the judge and whispers of betrayal among the grade-school girls. “The difference between Nineveh and Mercury is singular,” Burns writes, “Nineveh repented when Jonah delivered his message, and Mercury did not.”
Burns wants to flee the town’s entropy, and she looks to Mercury’s most famous escapee, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, for inspiration. Burns is so desperate to ensure her departure that one of her highest priorities in picking a boyfriend is whether or not she thinks he’ll leave Mercury. But despite her eagerness to leave, Burns sometimes loses herself in the comfort of small-town ritual. Her sanctuary is the church boys at summer camp, who “were pros at finding fun in places it didn’t exist.” She wants a place in the spotlight, either in school plays or as the homecoming queen.
Burns’ writing is deliciously dense and full of perfectly picked observations. Reading Cinderland almost instantly brought to mind Jo Ann Beard’s collection of memoir essays The Boys of My Youth. In both works, boys and men serve as catalyst, occasion, and antagonists for the writing. Burns and Beard have a similarly powerful command of language and the ability to be brutally honest and sympathetic toward their past selves. The difference is that Beard’s scope is bigger, both in terms of her themes and the period of her life. Burns would have benefited by following suit and not hanging so much of the book on Mr. Lotte. She takes us on tangential anecdotes where Lotte is out of the spotlight, but then jerks him back to the spotlight with transitions that feel forced. Burns’ depiction of her own life and the town are great, but she keeps returning to Lotte as a touchstone even when it doesn’t seem necessary or natural.
Despite this, Cinderland is a powerful and captivating memoir, especially for a debut. As Burns recounts and questions the choices she made in her youth, both the brave ones and the safe ones, she forces her readers to ask what we would have done, if we could have been strong enough to say something. This is, of course, what makes a memoir a success: not just being able to see the world through the author’s eyes, but understanding the whys and the hows of that foreign, intrinsically proprietary reality.